January 16, 2008


An interesting point Cowen addressed during his first five chapters was the idea of counter-signaling. During the fifth chapter, Cowen discusses the importance of signaling in our lives. He explains signaling as “a kind of personal advertising” that people use to make themselves look appealing, whether it is with the clothes they were, the actions they take, or the things they say.

Counter-signaling, Cowen says, can be just as effective as signaling. Counter-signaling is taking the opposite route from signaling, almost to the point of hiding your accomplishments. Cowen points to successful Japanese businessmen whose business cards are nothing but a name with no title or affiliation. The idea here is that the person is so successful that his business needs no introduction.

Cowen also describes many ways people dress and refer to themselves as effective uses of counter-signaling. For example, wearing a tie in a setting where there is very little at stake, such as in a meeting where your job is not on the line, can sometimes make you look bad as if you are trying far too hard to impress someone and maybe aren’t trustworthy.

Excessive use of titles can point to pretentiousness or a lack of interaction with others. Stephen Hawking doesn’t use “Ph.D” in his name, but we all know who he is and how important he is. Cowen points to a study that was done that shows that faculty at doctoral universities, especially higher status doctoral programs, were far less likely to use “Dr.” or “Professor” in their titles than those at non-doctoral universities. This is similar to not reporting good news very often. Successful and famous people do not report their every accomplishment; Greg Maddux doesn’t let everyone know what his current win total is now up to, Paul Stastny doesn’t remind everyone how many goals he scored during a game.

Conversely, counter-signaling can be wildly ineffective as well. In order for counter-signaling to be effective, you must be established first. You can’t go into a job interview wearing overalls and a “Who farted?” t-shirt and expect to be taken seriously. You also cannot appear to be trying to counter-signal as you may be seen as trying to play games or manipulate people. Counter-signaling works best in high upside, low downside professions such as tenured academia where the very best are rewarded with fame and money and the very worst are still not fired. It does not work in situations with low upside and high downside such as retail or restaurant work. I work in a sporting goods store where the ceiling for promotion is very low. Deciding to go my own way in sales tactics or merchandise arrangement probably won’t help me rise very far, but it’s more than possible it would get me fired.

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