By Inbal AbarbanelFebruary 08th, 2022

Let’s admit it. We’re all deeply engaged in “impression management.” We all take a great deal of effort to present a carefully crafted persona to the “world”. We’re all looking to improve or maintain our perceived social status. When interacting with other people, we constantly monitor our (and other people’s) speech, tonality, posture, appearance, ornaments, accessories, etc. We all try to control who we are seen with, the events we attend, and the places we visit – especially if we plan to post it on Instagram.

Practically speaking, everything we do or take part in emits a unique social signal that helps others assess our social status, i.e., where we are currently positioned within society’s great (invisible) tree of hierarchy.

Of course, historically, it was all about origin, gender, and socioeconomics. These explicit elements were considered primary sources of information about people’s place in the social hierarchy. In modern times, however (thanks to mass immigration, free markets, liberalism, and globalization), these explicit sources of information lost some of their flair. Even the impact of luxury vehicles and houses is becoming less effective (everything can be leased today). What’s left? You guessed it: virtue signaling.

Here’s another uncomfortable truth about ourselves. More often than not, we don’t take a stand or support causes, charities, or social goals because we believe in them. We might tell ourselves a different story, sure, but research suggests that first and foremost – we do things to show off. Virtue signaling is all about the “show off” value of the actions we take, the “opinions” we hold, the events we attend, etc. These choices and actions help us become associated with the communities and groups that we believe to represent a cluster of people of a higher social status than our own. We hope that these associations will help elevate our social status. Note: this is not to say that some people are sincere about good causes, but they are a minority.

Virtue signaling is the overtly conspicuous communication of good deeds and moral values. A good example is called slacktivism. This is when someone speaks about an issue without supporting the causes they claim to stand for. One of the most common examples of virtue signaling is hypocrisy – when someone makes statements that don’t represent their true beliefs or lifestyle. 

When is virtue signaling noticed?

Although everyone engages in virtue signaling regularly in their daily interactions, their actions may not be immediately noticed by those around them. Generally speaking, virtue signaling is only noticed when these tactics are done in an unsubtle manner. When this occurs, discrepancy erupts between what we’re signaling and our perceived social status. This is when the smoke and mirrors act is revealed, and the individual is exposed to the world for what they truly are. That said, virtue signaling is generally not recognized if we’re able to keep up the charade without anyone noticing.  

An instance of such discrepancy is nouveau riche behavior, where one flaunts newly acquired wealth in an unfashionable manner, such as boasting the latest clothing brands, dining in fancy restaurants, and driving flashy cars. This is in direct contrast to individuals who have already achieved fame who don’t find the need to brag to others. In instances such as these, it’s clear that the overly flashy individual is likely attempting to engage in virtue-signaling to win the approval of others.

Why is virtue signaling negatively perceived?  

We despise displays of dishonesty, where one forces a shift in their perceived status by faking their social attributes and not earning them through merit. When a person is revealed to be taking an insincere stance, just for the sake of integrating within a specific community or milieu, they’re instantly viewed as a fraud. Most people do not appreciate imposters. That’s because, on an instinctual level, impersonation signals danger. Furthermore, an individual following a trend but who isn’t leading or creating one is typically seen as spineless. Ultimately, these types of actions display weakness. 

To sum things up, virtue signaling is a natural part of impression management, a tactic to gain and maintain social status. Whether we like it or not, everybody does it. But, like everything else is frowned upon when it is done explicitly.