A Beginner’s Guide to Showing-Off: Part I



I don’t know about you, but blatant show-offs strike me as some of the basest individuals on the planet. From garish displays of physical prowess to oversized means of transportation to ostentatious domiciles, there’s nothing so arbitrary and wasteful than showing-off. So if you’re like me, you no doubt loathe gazelles for their smug stotting, barn swallows for their vainglorious tails, and bowerbirds for their pompous… well… bowers. Frankly, I’m absolutely repulsed by their behaviors which contribute nothing to society at large. And come on, what are they overcompensating for?

Of course, we could easily swap out the animal references above with examples of conspicuous displays — and that’s where we can find some insight into our fellow humans. There’s a tendency to assume that showing-off is some sort of cultural imperative that inclines us (men in particular, or so goes the stereotype) to engage in risky, wasteful, and expensive (along various axes) behaviors. It would be one thing (and a true thing) to say that showing-off occurs in all cultures, but recognizing that animals with tiny brains also engage in it allows for deeper perspective.

There’s an immutable law of evolutionary theory that every piece referencing sexual selection or signaling is required to mention the peacocks’ tail. Here goes: peacock tail. The problem with the peacocks, for our purposes, is that tails aren’t obviously related to “showing-off” that’s consciously controlled. Basically, peacocks are good examples for this (oversimplified) reason: it takes a healthy peacock to grow and groom an impeccable tail. I’ll tie this physical form of signaling to humans below, but the best theory we have for peacocks tails also explains behavioral signals. To connect those dots, we’ll need other examples.

The bowerbird demonstrates the irresistible allure of a well designed bachelor pad…

Imagine we’re in the woods together and come across a bear. There’s a saying for that scenario: “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you.” That’s not bad in theory, but in an environment with finite resources, conducting races to the death is inefficient for both the predator and all of the would-be prey that are faster than the slowest in the group. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could just communicate to the bear, in a legitimate way that the bear could understand, that I was faster than you so he might as well save us all a bunch of trouble and just chase you down? Gazelles have such a method of communication with predator cats.

The behavior, called stotting, is when a gazelle spots a predator and starts jumping vertically (more or less in one place). While commonly misunderstood as a warning signal to the other gazelles, it is really a way to say to the predator, “Hey, you can try and chase me, but I’m in top shape and you’ll probably end up wasting a lot of energy and fail anyway. So why don’t you move along to somebody else?” An injured, unhealthy, or otherwise ‘inferior’ gazelle may be either unable to stot, or do it less convincingly than other individuals. Note the distinct difference between running and stotting (in this clip, the stotting is not a signal to a predator, and is for illustration only)

This isn’t simply conjecture, data have shown that cheetahs more often abandon hunts when the gazelle stots, and if they do give chase, they are far less likely to succeed in a kill. Enter the framework foundational in evolutionarily informed understanding of human interaction — in business and all social interactions…

Costly Signaling Framework

The common thread in the examples above is that they act as a form of non-verbal communication. Not only is this appropriate in species without language, it can help humans avoid the ease of being lied to verbally. However, it’s also possible to fake non-verbal signals in some instances. Being outed for wearing knock-off designer clothes can be as socially damning as acquiring a reputation as a liar. The bulk of costly signaling theory comes from Amotz Zahavi’s handicap principle. Basically, the theory explains that only individuals with sufficient phenotypic quality can afford to display handicaps — whether physical or behavioral. This “quality” may be in terms of resistance to pathogens, developmental stability, behaviors improving resource control or collection, et cetera. Without digging too deeply into the theory, here are the three principles that separate legitimate show-offs from the fakers:

“Taken together, signaling models lead to a series of empirical expectations, or predictions, about the nature of animal signaling systems. These predictions are:

  1. that receivers will respond to signals,
  2. that signals are reliable enough to justify receiver response, and
  3. that signals are costly in a way that explains why they are reliable.” (Searcy & Nowicki, 2005)

These three qualifications are not arbitrary rules informed by intuition. They are the key points in the theoretical framework that has been studied in evolutionary biology for more than three decades. They have been scrutinized, subjected to, and vindicated by empirical data and mathematical models. If you’re going to engage in showing-off (and you are, even if in a non-conscious behavioral way or in terms of gene expression), you need to ask these three questions for optimal effectiveness.

Do receivers respond to the signal?

In modern spectacular society, the number of signals available to each individual is nearly limitless. The plethora of signal choices combined with the naivete of costly signal theory quickly leads to effort wasted on signals that elicit no (or negative) response. Another inherent property of this question is that signals can be tailored in such a way that only subgroups understand them enough to respond.

Is the signal reliable enough to justify a response in others?

This is the faker detection question. Rather than engage in the arms race between faking signals and determining faked signals, there’s always an advantage to genuine signals. The more genuine a signal appears, the more likely a receiver is to respond.

Does the cost of the signal explain its reliability?

It’s not enough for a signal to be costly. It must also relate to the particular quality it seeks to communicate to the receiver. A clue to the relevant domain of the signal must be intertwined with its cost. Signals requiring economic cost will explain the reliability of the economic signal, but may not signal anything about the willingness to share economic resources with a mate or offspring; signals costly in terms of time may signal the converse.


One of the first points to realize is that human behaviors are seldom as arbitrary as they may seem. Things that seem ridiculous from our perspective certainly may fail to be signals worthy of response, but it’s also possible that we don’t understand the signal or are out-group relative to the desired targets of the signal.

When investing in signals (time, money, etc.), it makes sense to consciously consider whether or not the signal can be understood, believed, and reliably acted upon. When interpreting signals, it’s important to assess the signals along the same criteria. This bi-directional analysis can be applied in both social and business messages (marketing, branding, etc.).

Next time in Part II: In terms of the costly signaling framework, is “strong the new skinny”, or does skinny remain a more reliable signal? Does anyone care about your deadlift max or Crossfit Fran time, or is your physique a more reliable signal? Which of these signals are failed or inferior attempts at communication, and which are effective?

What does the way you dress communicate about you? What’s the advantage of sticking out our fitting in?

Aside from all that, what other misdirected or unreliable signals can you think of? Subscribe via RSS and comment below…


References Searcy,William A., Nowicki, Stephen. The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems. Princeton University Press. (2005)

Zahavi, Amotz. Mate selection — A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology. Volume 53, Issue 1, September 1975, Pages 205-214 [pdf]

Zahavi, A., Zahavi, A., Zahavi-Ely, N., & Ely, M. The Handicap Principle. Oxford University Press. (1999)