When you clicked on this, you probably assumed I was going to talk about some lies the republican party is spreading after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Or maybe you assumed it was about some outlandish QAnon theory. But it’s not about either of those things. Today, we’re going to discuss the fascinating subject of lying as a means of social signaling in the age of Twitter.
But real quick, around the current debate of whether or not Trump can elect a conservative SCOTUS during the last year of his term, how ridiculous is it that the SCOTUS term lasts until death or resignation?
To give you some framing of why I find this subject so fascinating, I’ll start by stating that I personally believe that human behavior is one of the most interesting aspects of life out there. While we spend billions of dollars researching the universe, I personally think we should invest more in understanding the human mind right here on earth because we’re such strange creatures.
Over the last year or so, I’ve taken interest in why people tweet the things they tweet or post what they post on Facebook. While we all know someone who has posted on Facebook that their newborn’s first words were something like “nuclear fission” or how their 9-year old begged his parents to donate his heart to starving children around the world, we typically know that these are flat out lies.
Since the tragic passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I’ve noticed this happening on Twitter quite a bit as well.
First, let’s look at Exhibit A: This tweet was from a CEO name Alexandra Lee-Capps, and it said
This became an instant meme, and since then, Alexandra has not only made her Twitter private, but she also changed her bio removing her company. While I assume this was because of the backlash of her alleged lie that went viral, I do want to make it clear that I find it disgusting that people target a person’s livelihood and place of work when something like this happens.
Next, we have Exhibit B from the verified Twitter user Tim Grierson who is a senior critic for Screen Daily. As many of you know, a large earthquake shook California last night, and this was his tweet that soon followed:
While I can’t prove that this is a lie, and without a forensic investigation, it’d be hard to prove, I think it’s safe to be skeptical about this tweet. Hopefully, for his sake, he doesn’t receive the same backlash as Alexandra,
But I’m not just interested in public lying. I’m interested in lying from the perspective of social signaling. I want to have a better understanding of why people do what they do. I believe social signaling is a topic that we don’t give nearly enough attention to, and if we understood it better, we’d be able to better explain the behavior of others as well as ourselves.
I create content to see what we can learn to improve our own lives. And one of my favorite quotes comes from Otto von Bismark, which says:
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
Since developing my own working knowledge of social signaling, it’s allowed me to begin pausing before I tweet, post, or even make a YouTube video. While it’s still something I’m working on, I believe it’s a good practice to become more mindfully aware of the motives we have that often go unnoticed.
So, can we use some social and evolutionary psychology to explain why people have such ridiculous lies after the death of someone like RBG? I believe so.
Oh yeah, and fair warning, it’s about to get uncomfortable. Why? Because our ego defenses hate us discussing our unconscious motives and desires.
“I’m Part of Your Tribe”
My hope is that after you finish this article, you go to your Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram feed and ask yourself, “What is this person signaling?” because we’re all signaling something. Every post is sending a message to the world stating the type of person we are. When tweeting about the passing of RBG, we’re sending out the signal that our values align with RBG’s values, and if you too have those values, I’m in your tribe.
At this point, saying that we’re all still very tribal at our core is a trope used by overly masculine men, it’s quite true. Before diving into the evolutionary roots of this, I thought it’d be good to use comedian Trae Crowder’s tweets as an example of what I mean.
Personally, I absolutely love Trae Crowder, aka the Liberal Redneck, but I couldn’t help but try to decipher the social signals he put out when the news broke that RBG passed away.
In a tweet at 5:45 PM, he said:
As someone trying to translate social signals, I read this as,
“I once again want to remind you that I am liberal, and I am devastated by the loss of RBG. If you are liberal too, know that I am one of you.” and “While I can’t personally vouch for every person on Bill Maher’s stage, his crew or others, let it be known that the passing of RBG affected everyone in the room.”
So, part of this signal is reminding you of his tribal affiliation, and the second part is to let you know how impactful the situation is.
About 2 and a half hours later, he followed up with this tweet that has a video clip:
The way I see this is as,
“In order to avoid the fate of the #RuthkandaForever lady, here is my proof that was I said was true, thus solidifying the fact that I am part of your tribe.”
If you’re a little upset by this analysis, remember that I warned you that looking at our behaviors makes us a bit uncomfortable.
So, what’s with all this tribalism talk? Well, first we need to acknowledge that organisms take hundreds of thousands to millions of years to evolve. Humans are one of the newer species, and our technological advances far surpass our physical and psychological evolution. While the average height and lifespan of humans are much better than they were even a hundred years ago, we’re still pretty primitive mentally.
In his best-selling book about Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, Johann Hari famous studies to help explain the link between mental health and tribalism. Without a tribe, we feel increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. This happens because back in the day, being separated from the tribe was dangerous. If you were separated from the tribe and became injured or sick, it could mean death. So, depression and anxiety can often be alarms telling you to return to the tribe. Evolutionary psychologist dives even deeper into these subjects in his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry.
So, if being part of a tribe is a necessity for our survival and mental health, how do we ensure that we stay part of the tribe? Well, this is where social signaling comes in. We evolved to show the people we want to associate with, or our tribe, that we deserve our place in the group. In his book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, psychologist Joshua Green thoroughly explains this evolutionary process of tribalism and how we see it during modern times.
But this doesn’t necessarily explain why people lie. A person doesn’t necessarily need to lie to show that they’re part of the tribe.
It’s All About Status
Now that you’re in the tribe, there’s still work to be done. Nobody wants to be the lowest person in the tribe. In a famous 30-year study from Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky, he saw how African baboons develop depression when they’re lower in the social hierarchy. After seeing this, it’s since been duplicated with humans, and this also accounts for some of our depressive symptoms.
For humans, once we find our tribe, we want to work our way up. It’s not enough that we’re a member; we want to be someone people see as special in some way, and we do this through social signaling. I think a great analogy is given by cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier in his book Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. In his chapter on why we spread rumors, he explains that we do this to gain social clout. With each piece of information we share, when it’s verified, we gain “points” with our tribe. Eventually, we’re seen as a valuable source for information.
While Mercier uses this analogy when explaining why we share rumors and gossip, I think it also explains why we regularly signal on social media. When we’re more liberal or we’re more upset about the passing of RBG, our unconscious motive is that we’re seen as someone higher up on the hierarchical ladder in our tribe.
In their book Granstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, moral philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke argue that one of the primary motivations is prestige. In their book, they state:
“Prestige refers to the status that comes from people thinking well of you for your knowledge, skills, or success. You have access to important resources that others don’t, so they treat you with deference.”
“Grandstanders seek to elevate their social station, at least within some relevant social network. Often, they do this by seeking prestige for their moral qualities. They want the reputation for being inspiring moral exemplars, for example. They want this reputation, not necessarily for doing anything that is actually morally heroic, but for simply typing on their keyboard or uttering certain words. They think having this prestige will result in deference from others, at least when it comes to matters of morality.”
While Greene’s book builds up to the idea of the “us vs them” mentality of conservatives and liberals, and Tosi and Warmke discuss the prestige we try to attain within our tribes, I think it’s important to look at how we can find these examples in many other areas of our daily lives.
For your homework, I want you to start asking yourself, “What is this person signaling?” Are they signaling their political affiliation? Are they trying to let others know that they’re a good parent when posting about their kids? What about financial status? We can regularly look at the clothes people wear or cars they drive and assume what they’re signaling to the world.
But at the end of the day, this is a useful practice for all of us. We can start pausing and ask if we really need to send out certain signals online. As you saw with Alexandra, sometimes these signals can blow up in your face. By pausing for a moment, we’re more mindful of our use of social media, and it can also help us with our spending habits. Is it possible that we’re in a bad financial situation because we’re trying to signal to others who we are and how good we are?
Although we all need our tribes, we can all benefit from caring just a little less what other people think of us.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.