In My Words: Identifying costly signals helps us distinguish fact from fiction

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Biology Dave Gammon writes about how to use "costly signals" to determine what's truthful. The column was published by the Greensboro News & Record, the Salisbury Post and other media outlets.

By: Dave Gammon

In a gripping moment earlier this month, longtime conspiracy theorist Alex Jones finally admitted in a Texas courtroom that the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was “100% real.” The heavy cost he now bears underscores the honesty of his admission. Jones now owes nearly $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. He also undermined his own credibility with his preferred audience, a cost he will certainly feel for decades to come.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

In this age of ‘Fake News’ when we are inundated by firehoses of information, it is often difficult to assess which signals we receive are honest and important. High costs form one of the best clues that a signal is honest and important, according to Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli scientist who specializes in communication. Low-cost signals might be honest, but because these are easily faked, listeners ought to trust costly signals more.

I learned the importance of costly signals from my training as an animal behavior scientist. Just like Alex Jones, animals signal the quality of their message via costly signals.

Consider the communication within a typical pond. As many campers know all too well, male frogs croak incessantly during the spring and summer breeding season. Female frogs listen intently to these signals, and they tend to choose mating partners who call loudly over an entire night.

Croaking all night exposes frogs to high costs, such as physical exhaustion, retaliation from other males, and eavesdropping predators. Lower-quality males cannot endure these costs. Females therefore know they get a good catch when they select males with high-cost signals.

Costly signals also convey honesty in humans. Consider the COVID vaccine, a topic that has attracted plenty of fake news and conspiracy theories. When former President Trump encouraged his supporters at a rally to get the COVID vaccine, they booed him. His resoluteness in the face of these costs suggests he honestly signaled the high quality of the vaccine.

Costly political signals are easy to spot because there is so much pressure for politicians to fall in line with expectations. In late 2020 Georgia’s Secretary of StateBrad Raffensperger, a Republican, faced tremendous pressure from President Trump to reject the official results of the presidential election in the state. Even though he personally supported Trump, Raffensperger made the gutsy call to uphold the official results that declared Joe Biden the winner. Whether or not you agree, the high retaliation costs Raffensperger incurred from Trump and others indicate a high measure of integrity.

Politicians who use costly signals could still lie, of course, but politicians like that would not last long. There is no benefit to lying if doing so only heaps additional costs upon your head. We citizens are generally better off trusting costly signals as honest and being skeptical of low-cost statements.

Valuing costly signals works just as well in our personal interactions. I am more likely to believe my 14-year-old son when he says he just ran six miles if he is breathing hard and covered in sweat. And if I need to hire one of two candidates, I am usually better off with the candidate who endured a rigorous training program.

Plenty of unreliable signals compete for our attention, especially on social media. That’s because the costs of communicating on social media are usually minimal, which makes it difficult to distinguish honest signals. ‘Liking’ and ‘sharing’ posts is free. Posting our own thoughts is also free and takes just a few moments. Bubbles of like-minded communities tend to affirm rather than question posts, which makes retaliation less likely.

Those who form their worldviews on low-cost signals rely on a shaky foundation. We should train our brains to notice high-cost signals, which help us to distinguish honesty and truth in a society overstuffed with information.

Remember this lesson the next time you think about conspiracy theories, fake news, …or frog calls.