Signal theory: is deception useful?

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

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

    Signal theory: is deception scalable?

    Studied in the context of biological and evolutionary theory, deception or lying can take on an adaptive meaning. Transferred from there to the study of animal communication, deception is understood to be strongly related to persuasive activity, as it mainly involves providing false information for the benefit of the sender, even if doing so is detrimental to the sender. sender (Redondo, 1994).

    The above has been studied biologically in different species of animals, including humansBy the signals that certain individuals send 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 crossed by the constant exchange of different signals. Especially when it comes to an interaction involving a conflict of interest, the signals exchanged may appear honest, even if they are not.

    In this same sense, signal theory has proposed that the evolution of an individual of any species is marked in an important way by the need to transmit and receive signals in an increasingly sophisticated way, so that this it makes it possible 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, because by emitting a certain signal, the behavior of the receiver is changed, to the benefit of the sender.

    These are honest signals when the behavior matches the intention it appears. On the other hand, these are dishonest signals when the behavior appears to be one intention, but has another, which is also potentially dangerous for the recipient, And surely beneficial for those who deliver it.

    The development, evolution and fate of these, dishonest signals, can have two possible consequences on the dynamics of certain species, according to Rodó (1994). Let’s see below.

    1. The dishonest signal goes out

    According to signal theory, signals of deception are particularly emitted by individuals who have an advantage over others. In fact, this suggests that in an animal population where there are mostly honest signals, and one of the most biologically efficient individuals initiates an honest signal, the latter will develop rapidly.

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

    From the above, it can also happen that 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 threat postings made by seagulls. While there is a wide variety of these screens, they all seem to have the same function, meaning that a set of potentially dishonest signals has been defined as honest signals.

    2. The dishonest signal is corrected

    However, another effect can occur in the presence and increase of dishonest signals. This is where the signal is permanently attached to the people, which happens if all honest signals are turned off. In this case, the dishonest signal no longer remains as a dishonest signal, because in the face of a lack of sincerity, the deception loses its meaning. There remains therefore a convention which it loses the link with the recipient’s initial reaction.

    An example of the latter is the following: a herd shares an alarm signal warning of the presence of a predator. It is a sincere signal, which serves to protect the species.

    However, if one of the members gives this same signal, but not when a predator approaches, but when it fails to compete for food with other members of its own species, it will gain it an advantage. on his flock. the signal (now deceptive) to transform and maintain. In fact, several species of birds emit false alarm signals to distract others and thus obtain food.

      The principle of disability

      In 1975, Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that issuing certain honest signals comes at such a high cost that only the most biologically dominant individuals can afford to execute them.

      In this sense, the existence of certain honest signals would be guaranteed by the cost they entail, as well as by the existence of dishonest signals. This ultimately represents a disadvantage for less dominant individuals. who want to send false signals.

      In other words, the benefit derived from the emission of dishonest signals would only be reserved for the most biologically dominant individuals. This principle is known as the handicap principle (which in English can be translated as “disadvantage”).

      Application to the study of human behavior

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

      For example, attempts have been made to understand, assess and even predict the authenticity of the different intentions, goals and values ​​generated in the interactions between certain groups.

      The latter, according to Pentland (2008), passes from the study of its signaling patterns, which would represent a second communication channel. Although this remains implicit, it explains why decisions or attitudes are taken outside of the most basic interactions, such as during a job interview or during a first cohabitation between strangers.

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

      Bibliographical references:

      • Principle of disability (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.
      • Rodó, 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 signaling theory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 340 (1292).

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