Are Heroism, Philanthropy, and Religion About Showing Off?

Costly Signaling Theory puts a different spin on admirable everyday actions.

Posted Jul 26, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the past, it had been difficult for scientists to understand altruistic acts such as large philanthropic gifts, heroic self-sacrificial behavior, or handouts to beggars that could never be reciprocated.  From an evolutionary point of view, these things appeared at first glance to be somewhat counterproductive.

However, a perspective known as Costly Signaling Theory makes sense of these extreme forms of altruism.

The term Handicap Principle has often been used as a synonym for “Costly Signaling Theory.”  This reflects the origins of the theory in research on animal communication.  Some animals “handicap” themselves with extremely costly biological features that only individuals in excellent condition can afford to maintain.  The brilliant plumage of the peacock’s tail and the impressive antlers of elk are classic (if a bit timeworn) examples of such handicaps.

Costly Signaling Theory proposes that we send honest signals about ourselves through handicaps —signals about our genetic quality, our access to resources, or our cooperative nature—that would be hard to fake, and that this can have long-term benefits for us.

Costly signaling is very much about truth in advertising. A “low-quality” signaler who attempts to fake a high-quality signal will deplete whatever resources that he may have available, leaving the signaler in such a vulnerable position that the strategy will prove to be counterproductive.  Conversely, a high-quality signaler has resources to burn and can easily afford a high-quality signal, so the adaptive benefits will outweigh the costs.

Costly signaling theory offers a viable explanation for many human actions that might be otherwise hard to explain.          

Source: Shutterstock

Philanthropy as Costly Signaling

Public philanthropy is one of the most common costly signals of social status in humans, especially in Western cultures such as the United States. Universities, public television stations, museums, and the arts depend upon it for their very survival.  Costly signaling theory suggests that such philanthropy is a conspicuous display of resources that reinforces the status, resources, helpfulness, and all-around quality of the benefactor. After all, if a person can afford to expend a great deal of money, energy, or time in a manner that seems to be irrelevant to his or her selfish interests, then the resources that are being held in reserve must be very great indeed.

And this impulse may not be entirely selfless.

There is anthropological evidence that individuals who have a history of being magnanimous are rewarded by others when times get tough, and laboratory studies by psychologists have also demonstrated that charitable donations and other acts of kindness are most likely to take place when the behaviors are easily observed and recognized by others.

Some researchers posit that conspicuous displays of philanthropy and benevolence can be triggered by mating motives, possibly as a way of advertising personality traits valued by prospective mates, and research confirms that males are more likely to display altruism in the presence of attractive members of the opposite sex. The same does not hold true for females.

Risk Taking and Heroism as Costly Signaling

It’s no secret that young men are notorious for engaging in foolish, risky behavior.

How could this predilection for recklessness have evolved in young men?

In early human societies, competitive success in early adulthood established a man’s standing in his social group for the rest of his life; it wasn’t possible to simply hit the “reset” button and join another group, so what happened during the teen years mattered a great deal. For this reason, high-risk competition between young males provided an opportunity for “showing off” the abilities needed to acquire resources, exhibit strength, and to meet challenges to one’s status. Consequently, heroic or even recklessly daredevil behavior was rewarded with status and respect—assuming, of course, that the young man survived the ordeal.  Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes has developed the “Show-Off Hypothesis” to explain the well-replicated finding that men in hunter-gatherer societies who use more risky hunting strategies end up with greater sexual access to women.

A form of altruism that serves as an especially effective costly signal is physically risky altruistic behavior, which is the very definition of heroism.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that even apparently selfless impulses such as true heroism must provide some adaptive advantage for individuals; otherwise, such behaviors would have been strongly selected against; and many studies confirm that people who sacrifice for the group by engaging in physically costly altruistic activities do in fact achieve elevated social status, respect, and recognition as a result of their public selflessness, especially when the behavior displays courage and physical strength.

Displaying heroism in time of war is an especially powerful way for young men to acquire rewards from costly signaling.

Source: Shutterstock

Conspicuous Consumption as Costly Signaling

Perhaps the most readily observable form of costly signaling in capitalistic societies is wasteful spending on luxury goods that by definition are not essential for survival, or even for comfort, in daily life.  This “conspicuous consumption” is driven by a desire for status and the clear signaling of this status to onlookers. 

A series of seven studies, confirmed that wearing brand label clothing does indeed increase perceptions of a person’s wealth and status, and that this perception leads to all sorts of advantages.  Specifically, these studies demonstrated that individuals wearing expensive branded clothing are more likely to gain compliance to their requests, be recommended for jobs and higher salaries, achieve better outcomes in social dilemma and dictator games, and that they are more successful when soliciting charitable donations from others.  Other experiments have demonstrated that people buy expensive, environmentally friendly products specifically to boost perceptions of status and to advertise their own altruistic tendencies.

Religious Commitment as Costly Signaling

Religion has long been thought of as a social mechanism for enforcing cooperation within cultural groups.  One of the ways in which it may successfully accomplish this is by using religious commitment as a costly signaling device.  All religions have rituals, taboos, and other requirements that can be very costly in terms of time, money, or effort.  Fasting, tithing, frequent and lengthy prayer and/or religious services, and dietary requirements that are difficult to follow require a good deal of commitment.  Thus, religious commitment can be a signal of commitment to the group’s values that is hard to fake, and a signal that one is likely to be a reliable, cooperative group member.  A historical analysis of communal societies discovered that the groups with the costliest membership requirements survived for the longest times, but only if the commune had an underlying religious reason for existence.