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Signal theory: is deception useful?

Signal theory: is deception useful?

August 17, 2022

Signal theory, or signaling theory , groups a set of studies in the field of evolutionary biology, and suggests that the study of signals exchanged in the communication process between individuals of any species, can account for their evolutionary patterns, and can also help us differentiate when the signals emitted are honest or dishonest.

We will see in this article what signal theory is, what are the honest and dishonest signals in the context of evolutionary biology, as well as some of its consequences in studies on human behavior.

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Signal theory: is deception evolving?

Studied in the context of biological and evolutionary theory, cheating or lying can acquire an adaptive sense . Translated to aprir to the study of animal communication, deception is understood as strongly linked to persuasive activity, since it consists mainly in providing false information for the benefit of the issuer, even if it means a loss to the issuer (Redondo, 1994).

The above has been studied by biology in different species of animals, including humans , through the signals that send individuals to others and the effects they produce.

In this sense, evolutionary theory tells us that the interaction between individuals of the same species (as well as between individuals of different species), is traversed by the constant exchange of different signals. Especially when it comes to an interaction that involves a certain conflict of interest, the signals exchanged may seem honest, even if they are not.

In this same sense, the theory of signals has proposed that the evolution of an individual of any species is marked in an important way by the need to emit and receive signals in a more and more perfected way, so that this allows to resist the manipulation of other individuals .

Honest signals and dishonest signals: differences and effects

For this theory, the exchange of signals, both honest and dishonest, has an evolutionary character, since when emitting a certain signal, the behavior of the receiver is modified, for the benefit of the emitter.

It is about honest signals when the behavior corresponds to the intention that appears. On the other hand, these are dishonest signals when the behavior looks like an intention, but in reality it has another, which is also potentially harmful to the recipient , and surely beneficial for the one who issues it.

The development, the evolution and the destiny of the latter, the dishonest signals, can have two possible consequences for the dynamics of some kind, according to Redondo (1994). Let's see them below.

1. The dishonest signal is extinguished

According to signal theory, signals of deception are especially emitted by those individuals who have an advantage over others. In fact, it suggests that in an animal population where there are predominantly honest signals, and one of the most biologically effective individuals initiates an honest signal, the latter will expand with speed .

But what happens when the receiver has already developed the ability to detect dishonest signals? In evolutionary terms, individuals who receive dishonest signals generated increasingly complex evaluation techniques in order to detect which signal is honest and which is not, which gradually decreases the benefit of the issuer of deception , and finally causes its extinction.

From the above it can also happen that the dishonest signals are eventually replaced by honest signals. At least temporarily, while increasing the likelihood that they will be used with dishonest intentions. An example of this is the exhibitions of threats made by seagulls . Although there is a great variety of such exhibits, they all seem to have the same function, which means that a set of potentially dishonest signals have been set as honest signals.

2. The dishonest signal is fixed

However, another effect may occur in the presence and increase of dishonest signals. This is that the signal is fixed permanently in the population, what happens if all the honest signals are extinguished. In this case, the dishonest signal no longer remains a dishonest signal, because in the absence of sincerity the deceit loses its meaning. It remains, then, as a convention that loses connection with the initial reaction of the person who receives it .

An example of the latter is the following: a flock shares an alarm signal that warns of the presence of a predator. It is a sincere sign, which serves for the protection of the species.

However, if any of the members emit that same signal, but not when a predator approaches, but when they experience a failure in the competition for food with other members of their own species, this will gain an advantage over their flock and would that the signal (now deceptive) is transformed and maintained. In fact, several species of birds make false alarm signals to distract others and thus get food.

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The principle of handicap

In the year of 1975, the Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that the emission of some honest signals supposes a cost so high, that only the most biologically dominant individuals can afford to perform them .

In this sense, the existence of some honest signals would be guaranteed by the cost involved, and the existence of dishonest signals as well. This ultimately represents a disadvantage for less dominant individuals who want to emit false signals.

In other words, the benefit acquired by the emission of dishonest signals would be reserved only for biologically more dominant individuals. This principle is known as the principle of the handicap (which in English can be translated as "disadvantage").

Application in the study of human behavior

Among other things, signal theory has been used to explain some interaction patterns , as well as the attitudes displayed during the coexistence between different people.

For example, an attempt has been made to understand, evaluate and even predict the authenticity of different intentions, objectives and values ​​generated in the interactions between certain groups.

The latter, according to Pentland (2008), occurs from the study of their signaling patterns, what would represent a second communication channel . Although it remains implicit, it allows explaining why decisions or attitudes are made in the margin of the most basic interactions, such as in a job interview or in a first coexistence between strangers.

In other words, it has served to develop hypotheses about how we can know when someone is genuinely interested or attentive during a communicative process.

Bibliographic references:

  • Handicap principle (2018). Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 4, 2018. Available at //
  • Pentland, S. (2008). Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World. The MIT Press: USA.
  • Redondo, T. (1994). Communication: theory and evolution of signals. In: Carranza, J. (ed.). Ethology: Introduction to the Science of Behavior. Publications of the University of Extremadura, Cáceres, pp. 255-297.
  • Grafen, A. and Johnstone, R. (1993). Why we need ESS signalling theory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 340 (1292).

Detecting Emotion, Intent, Deception and other Signals in Text (August 2022).

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