Jul 11 • 15M

Virtue Signaling: What is it and why is it problematic? | Just Reflections #51

Doing a good deed to help another should come from a place of empathy and compassion. But when it is done to serve a selfish desire for public praise, this understanding for others becomes shallow.

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Bhekani Khumalo
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.
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People love to impress each other. We dress to impress; we show off our material wealth, our connections, our bodies, our intelligence and yes, even our morals. Like many others who spend a fair amount of their time on social media, I have seen my fair share of virtue signalling. But what is virtue signaling? It refers to when someone attempts to show that they are a morally impressive or virtuous person.

Virtue-signallers adopt a holier than thou attitude when approaching discourse. By pointing out the supposed moral imperfection of others, they appear to be a more progressive and compassionate person.

Thanks to social media, we’re virtue signalling more often, to larger groups of people and with more to gain from it. With offering support being as easy—and requiring as little thought—as sharing someone’s Instagram story, or re-tweeting something on Twitter, feeds have been flooded with posts that “stand up against social issues.” So much, in fact, that even brands have started virtue signalling.

This could have been great and a vital step towards affecting change, but it’s telling how quickly the support fades. Take the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 as an example. For weeks after the horrendous events that triggered these social movements, social media was overflowing with support for those affected by racial discrimination and abuse. But the support disappeared just as fast as it came. Social media has made virtue-signalling trendy, which ultimately offers no help to those who need it.

Now, we could just toss virtue signalling in the bin as just one of those weird social media behaviours. But research is showing that there could be something more sinister at hand. It can lead to serious problems related to how we discuss society’s problems and what we decide to do about them.

Virtue signalling isn’t virtuous. It requires no effort, hard work or self-sacrifice. If people spend their time broadcasting emphatically how good they are, there’s a very good chance they are not. It turns out the old adage is true, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Who are the virtue signalers?

Virtue signalling is predominantly associated with the left. But it would be wrong and naïve to assume that it doesn’t happen on the right. It likely exists across the political spectrum. Be honest, you’ve also done it too. Social media is likely the driver of why it seems so one-sided.

Before we go further. Remember, sometimes people engage in behaviours that look just like virtue signalling with genuine intentions. Which makes this issue a little complicated. None of us can really know for sure when someone’s trying to impress. Regardless, let’s look at five of the most common forms of virtue signalling and discuss why we do them and why it’s a problem.

The five forms of Virtue Signalling

I found this impressive classification of the most common forms of Virtue Signaling by YouTuber Laci Green. Let’s check it out.

1. Piling on

Piling on could be an angry type, like cancel culture. But most times it’s just piling on agreements to what someone already said. For example:

Piling on could even be something supportive. Like the black squares on Instagram.

Why do we do this? Piling on signals to the people that we’re agreeing with that we’re part of their group. We’re the good guys and we’re on the right side of history—of course, every moral group thinks this about itself.

Piling on can also help to enforce social norms through conformity. It tells other members of the in-group that we expect you to act this way, or to think these things, otherwise you can’t sit with us.

Interestingly, piling on can strengthen an idea so far that eventually the group collectively holds to something that none of the individual members actually believes in. At this point, the group can make and act on group decisions that none of the group members want.

Crazy right!? I wrote about how this happens in my article on conformity here.

Our drive to announce that we agree can be so strong that researchers have found that over 30% of people will go out of their way to publicly state they agree even if they don’t. It’s called Preference Falsification. Check out my article on preference falsification to learn more.

It gets even more messed up because these secret preference falsifiers will even publicly shame people who express the same reservations that they secretly hold.

This group-think effect is how piling on leads to many kinds of unethical and immoral behaviour like bullying, harassment and violence.

2. Ramping up

This is where people make increasingly extreme statements about an issue in this sort of “moral arms race.” Someone posts a bad tweet. Someone jumps in and says, “No actually this is very misguided.” Then someone else says, “Actually, this is bigoted.” Then yet another person chimes in and says, “Excuse me! This person is a literal Nazi.”

I’m sure we’ve all seen those conversations on Twitter that escalate way too fast and get out of hand really quick.

By shifting our claims to be more and more extreme we secure ourselves as the moral champions of our group. I mean if I don’t take this as seriously as other black people like me then I might just be morally average. So I need to beat the last level of outrage.

Here’s the problem. Ramping up can trap us in an infinite escalation spiral. There’s really no cap on how extreme the claims can get because the point isn’t to state the truth, it’s to show how impressively outraged we are. This makes it really hard to explore the nuances of an issue. This is a big contributor to political polarization. And when the arguments become really extreme, most people in the middle just tune out.

3. Dismissiveness

This is stuff like, “Your views are so vile and so repugnant that I can’t even discuss them with you. #dobetter”

Obviously, not every opinion on the internet needs to be debated and nobody owes us their time or energy. Nonetheless, dismissiveness can be used in a sinister way. Not to draw a line but to block critical thinking and shut down debate.

When this becomes the norm in our discussions it pushes us deeper into our echo chambers. It also discourages the important healthy practice of hearing out alternative viewpoints.

4. Overstating Harm

This is when a person claims that a relatively small moral problem is a huge moral violation. An example of this is arguing that teaching sex education will cause teenagers to have orgies. That’s certainly not what sex education is or is about and making it seem so is really making a mountain out of a molehill. And if you don’t like the idea of kids being taught sex education, there are many ways to make your argument without overstating harm.

Overstating harm shows how sensitive we are to our in-group. How seriously we take even the tiniest infractions, which helps to boost our reputation and our status. This kind of stuff gets lots of attention on social media, which leads to more of it.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t discuss small moral violations but that we shouldn’t treat them the same as larger more impactful ones. Otherwise, we dilute the power of the message when serious messages need to be sent. It messes with our moral alarm systems so that all the threats sound the same. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Cry wolf enough times and people grow apathetic, and hostile and tune out. And they won’t be able to tell when the wolf actually enters the village.

5. Excessive outrage

While excessive outrage of any form is problematic because it’s…well…excessive. The virtue signal type of outrage is special because it’s primarily aimed at bolstering one’s sense of self. The goal of this brand of outrage is to underscore one's own virtuous attributes by pointing out how non-virtuous others are. Such outrage might be seen in statements such as:

  • How could anyone even think such a thing?

  • Who would do that?

  • What kind of person would do that?

  • Can you believe she did that?

  • I would never do that!

Researchers found that excessive outrage makes us feel good because it helps us ease our guilt. We live in a world that’s full of many complicated problems, so expressing a lot of outrage can make us feel like we did something about it.

This episode of the NPR podcast explains the effects of outrage culture much better than I ever could. But here’s the overarching point.

“Comments on social media and cable news often give reasons to be angry. Sometimes anger seems to be the whole point. Anger draws Internet clicks, which is to say that many people now have a motive or even a business model for getting you mad.… Psychologist Molly Crockett at Yale says these cycles of outrage feed on one another and can produce fatigue and disengagement among audiences. If the volume on everything is turned to 11, how do you separate signal from noise?… even as outrage is effective at capturing attention, its audience is mostly people who share the same beliefs. The people who disagree are listening to rants in their own echo chambers.… messages presented with less outrage are more likely to spark conversations with opponents. Those are the people, after all, whose views we want to change.” — NPR, “How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture And Our Minds.”

Outrage is contagious. Its contagion is often a force for good. What was once accepted as the way of the world can be exposed as evil by others’ outrage. Sexual harassment, for example, when condemned by others, emerges from its safe hiding spaces to wither in the spotlight. However, this also means that the more xenophobes declare themselves, the more readily others join them.

Why is virtue signalling problematic?

There are several reasons virtue signalling is problematic. Top of these is that it encourages a climate of reduced empathy and understanding of others, the motives behind acts become warped, and it creates a world in which the bare minimum becomes the accepted standard.

Doing a good deed to help another should come from a place of empathy and compassion. But when it is done to serve a selfish desire for public praise, this understanding for others becomes shallow. When good deeds become less about doing good and more about self-promotion, are they really good deeds anymore?

There is an argument to be made that whatever the motive, doing good will be beneficial to someone, somewhere, however all too often when virtue signalling is involved, it’s likely that only the bare minimum of support is being given. And, when virtue signalling is normalised, so too is this minimal level of effort, and it doesn’t take long for this level to become the accepted standard.

Level-headed solutions

Ironically, when we see people virtue-signalling, there’s a temptation to call them out and shame them. But calling people out for doing this will not improve our conversations. If we want to have healthier conversations, it’s more important to look at ourselves and ask ourselves, “am I doing this to do good or am I saying this just to look good?”

Most of us have a basic compulsion to be seen as a good person. But we need to realise that online discussions aren’t the right place to satisfy that need. Doing that shifts the focus of the discussions and takes away from the prospect of a vibrant intellectual culture where we engage in public discourse to find objective truth where it exists and to serve the greater public good, even where we can’t agree.

It also does a disservice to the moral issues themselves. The better way to cultivate this sense of self-worth is to be a good person than just to be seen as one. We can achieve this through what we do and how we act and not so much by what we say. Think things like helping your community, treating people around you well, getting involved on the ground in social issues, donating time, money and resources and doing the right thing quietly. We can also set ourselves up for better success by removing ourselves from places where that behaviour is common or encouraged.

Last, instead of publicly shaming people—which almost never works—we can start more general conversations about this stuff in our social group. This can help raise the collective self-awareness so that when the time comes to have hard conversations, they’re more productive and we’re less likely to fall into the temptation of virtue signalling.