Useful and Wasteful Signaling

One of the goals of this blog is to make sure that I never run for office in the future.  That said, a recent Talking Points Memo by McMillan Cottom, Why Do Poor People 'Waste' Money On Luxury Goods?, looks at an interesting topic. (Hat tip: Gene Z)

"I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn't work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try."

Owning a nice outfit for job interviews or general interaction with the outside world can vastly improve the results. That's why the phrase "dress for success" is generally accepted as common knowledge. And it is a particularly useful strategy for groups that are likely to be discriminated against in everyday interactions. 

However, the point doesn't actually counter the normal critiques of wasteful signaling spending by the poor.  When people discuss the wasteful spending, it isn't about buying a nice suit. They are usually geared towards behavior such as spending more money on large jewelry or flashy footwear.

For those looking for some hard data on this, the 2012 Federal Reserve's Consumer Expenditure Survey found that African Americans had after tax incomes almost 30% lower than Whites and Asians yet spent almost 25% more per year on footwear. On an absolute basis, the only category of people to spend more on footwear were Asians, yet they still spent a significantly lower amount of their total after tax income.

The spending on footwear and jewelry and other such items is still signaling, but unlike buying a nice suit this is signaling at the in-group. The people who respond positively to these signals are generally in similar cultural and social circles. Buying suits or outfits to fit in at a common work environment is signaling an outside group and potentially changing their view in an important way.  Signaling outside groups can be a productive behavior, and if enough people do it then it can change people's perspectives and reduce the need to signal in the long run.  

On the other hand, signaling to inside groups is very wasteful. Everyone is wasting resources in an attempt to establish relative status positions. This type of behavior should not be encouraged unless there are other significant benefits from signaling behavior. An example of a signal that could be useful is parents bragging about their children's educational achievements* or people exercising and eating healthy to be in the best shape.  In the long run, this is much more productive than trying to wear nicer clothes or drive nicer cars. 

Cottom ends their piece with a plea for people to be more understanding of signaling by poor people.

"You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it."

It is true that most of us (I'm making demographic assumptions about my 15 known readers here) aren't in a position to understand what poor people go through. But overall the piece lacks an understanding that there are important differences between useful and wasteful signaling. The useful signal helps correct an incorrect view held by others. The wasteful signal is spending limited resources on playing in-group status games with no long term benefits.

*To an extent. Our current obsession with college degrees regardless of the cost or usefulness of the major is actually one of society's current problems.
4 responses
Garry Tan upvoted this post.
Signaling becomes much more important in heterogenous environments. I would argue that signaling to out-of-group members has increased quite a bit since like wants to attract like. What I'd like to believe is that if out-of-group signaling has increased, then in-group competition / out-bidding behavior has been reduced simply because the ideal thing is just to fit in with your own chosen group, rather than one-up those around you.
Hi Gary, thanks for the comment. While it would be nice to believe people just want to fit in, it seems likely that in-group signaling will never go away. At the very least people need to signal that they are fitting in, and some people will do this more than others. The best that can be hoped for is that the type of signaling favored is not socially wasteful in aggregate. People who start companies or write books are partially playing in-group status games yet these are things where the value of wasted resources is small since the endeavors are generally worthwhile in the first place.
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