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Signaling

A lot of the actions that we take are driven by our intent to signal - and this act of doing something to send out a signal is termed signaling.

When we shop at an upmarket grocery store that is selling organic products, we are signaling that we are health-conscious and environment-conscious. 

When we post travel pictures on Instagram, we are signaling that we can afford to travel to exotic places for vacations. 

When we ride a bicycle instead of taking a car, we are signaling that we are more fitness-conscious and environment-conscious. 

When we support a certain political party, when we buy a product from a certain brand, when we go out to a fancy restaurant, when we do something nice (or something mean) for someone else, when we donate to a charity, we are signaling something in each of these cases.

In all these cases, there are three kinds of signaling that we do. 

The first is what we're signaling to the outside world - the out-group. This is what those who shop at an upmarket grocery store signal to those who don't (or can't). 

The second is what we're signaling to those who are like us - the in-group. This is what those who are part of a club signal to each other - like football fans of a particular club.

The third is what we're signaling to ourselves. This is how we form our identity in our own heads. This is when we do things because we feel people like us do things like this. 

There will be overlap in these three types. For instance, I might be riding a bicycle to signal to myself that I'm fitness-conscious, to the in-group that I'm similar to them (others who bike) and to the out-group all at the same time. In fact, every act has these three types of signaling.

However, what's important is to understand which of these three components is driving our actions in the first place.

Are we shopping at the upmarket grocery store because we derive joy from showing people in the out-group that we're better than them somehow or from the fact that we can afford to spend more than some others? Or are we doing it because all of our friends shop there and we don't want them to perceive us as somehow inferior or different from them? OR are we doing it because we believe that's the best value for our money and because we feel good about eating healthier and supporting sustainable practices?

Understanding what component of signaling drives our behaviour is the first step to changing or extending said behaviours. 

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