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)

  1. NomadicNeill 13 years ago

    Looking forward to the second part!

  2. Primate 13 years ago

    Great article, very cogently described the theories involved. It's an interesting topic, and the theories have good explanatory power. Geoffrey Miller's book The Mating Mind is a good exposition of sexual selection, the handicap principle, costly signalling and so on.

    Showing off, implicitly or explicitly, is, I think, a fitness indicator. The status marker among primates, physical dominance, has been overtaken by modern markers of prestige such as wealth, honour, hipness, moral rectitude, and sophistication. And making a show of your refined taste – in literature, classical music, wine, food – is a neat way of advertising to potential lovers how great you are, a high quality mate far above the dribbling hoi polloi.

    Anyway, to give a (fairly speculative) shot at your last question–on the topic of physiques, I think men overestimate how much importance women place on male physical attractiveness as a criteria for mate choice. Most guys who see a rich, socially dominant but monkey-faced man with a gorgeous playboy model girlfriend will decry the perversities of the universe, concluding that she's using him for his money. Perhaps a little bit of projection is going on, since men value female beauty so much. I'm not saying that looks don't matter in men–obviously they do, just not as much as most men think they do, and putting a ton of effort into getting massively jacked and wearing the most stylish clothing is a misdirected signal compared with, say, seeking social status.

    And women, I think, overestimate how much men value social status as a criterion for mate selection (compared to the importance women place on success and social status in a man). Many women think that, all else being equal, their success in their careers makes them highly valued mates, when it's not really as important as they think; feminine personality, a worldly mind, and physical beauty are the most important things, not careerism, salary, or ivy league credentials. It's not very PC to mention such things, but the "mating market" doesn't care about our equalist platitudes.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      "I think men overestimate how much importance women place on male physical attractiveness as a criteria for mate choice. "

      As I've written before, I disagree… sorta. Basically, I think this question is too complex to generalize. This sentence packs a lot of the nuances into one statement…

      "Women preferred more masculine male body shapes when they were in the… fertile phase of the menstrual cycle though this effect was seen mainly for choices of short-term partner." – PubMed

      In other words, when we ask an individual woman the question of attractiveness will tend to influence the answer. Since women are infertile for most of every month, it may be true that they're less attracted to physical characteristics averaged across time, but that isn't necessarily what counts (for men or women). Sometimes men underestimate how much importance women place on physical attractiveness. I'm reminded of this every time I see some chubby sitcom doofus with a hot wife.

      I also think that women are more attracted to men on a detached cognitive level when looking at 'cerebral' traits and more on a physical level when looking at physical traits. It's really a matter of figuring out which traits are our best (in terms of the costly signalling framework) and signalling as many of them as possible.

  3. David Csonka 13 years ago

    When I go home late from the bar and my car is in a dark alley, I sometimes skip up and down as high as I can over to where I parked. I've haven't been mugged yet – slotting must work!

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      In humans, stotting probably just signals (rather reliably) that you're insane. There's lots of social psychology backing up why muggers would be repelled by this behavior. 🙂

  4. Bennett 13 years ago

    Dave — I find that marching while singing "Seventy Six Trombones" from 'The Music Man' will get you a wide berth, too. Human predators will chase down things that are bigger, stronger, faster, you name it, but nobody wants a piece of someone who's crazier than them.

    Also, I think showing-off might be an unnecessarily negative term for the behaviors here. Displays of value aren't necessarily related to the implicit narcissism. The last girl I dated for a while liked me because I helped her finish a large project for a university class. I was a busy grad student myself at the time, and helping her out demonstrated not only "Hey, I'm intelligent enough to help you" it also said "And I'm a good enough guy to make the time to do so." And all those jocks in high school thought I'd never get laid by hitting the books.

    For more irony, the project was on Veblen's theory of invidious (conspicuous) consumption.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Ah, yes… I replied to David before reading your comment about craziness. Spot on.

      "I think showing-off might be an unnecessarily negative term for the behaviors here. Displays of value aren't necessarily related to the implicit narcissism."

      I intentionally chose "showing-off" to point out that everyone is a hypocrite. Everybody shows-off and is narcissistic on some level, yet it's fashionable to deny it. To my mind, the inherent negativity comes from collectively lying about it.

      • Bennett 13 years ago

        Hmmm. Point. A wiser head than me (an aikido instructor, IIRC) once said that 'Ego is the idea we have of ourselves that we expect other people to understand without us having to explain it'. Whereas showing-off is, rather explicitly, an attempt to explain that image, or possibly portray a false one.

        So in a sense, presuming the displays to be honest ones at the least (lying is never kosher, methinks, as a broad rule), maybe it's actually all the more egotistical *not* to display consciously, and just somehow think that our real true nature (whatever the hell that's supposed to be) is shining through on its own.

  5. WhatAboutJason 13 years ago

    If find myself stotting whenever i see my boss coming down the hall…..this spares me of at least 1 TPS report per day

  6. Sheath 12 years ago

    Part 2??

  7. Author
    Lamar Johnson 12 years ago

    Does this imply that influencing behavior can be as simple (or complex) as providing signaling at the appropriate moment? Does this imply that the rigorous “training” required to “stott” is far less important that the ability to demonstrate the skill at the appropriate moment?  If so, it does not diminish the need for developing the ability but it absolutely highlights the need to recognize the opportunity for when the display is required.

  8. Author

    […] “A beginner’s guide to showing off” from Evolvify This entry was posted in Workout of the Day by Todd. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  9. Author
    Stephanie Fail 11 years ago

    "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." This is dead on! I have met some flashy guys that were at heart cheap. An artistic effort- whether writing a poem or planning a creative date will SEEM more sincere. We want a man adapted enough to the modern world to thrive in it and have the free time to make us feel special. What female would honestly prefer to be the sole breadwinner while dealing with the physical demands of pregnancy? From an evolutionary perspective- for me to sacrifice my physical resources for a pregnancy with a partner- I want to know that he is a stable procurer of resources. The last thing I want is a male anglerfish…

Leave a reply

Evolvify ©2010 - 2024.


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?