Virtue signalling, spelled virtue signaling in the United States, is the conspicuous expression of moral values. The term was first used in academic context such as signalling theory in evolutionary biology, signalling in economics and contract theory, and to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious. In recent years, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative by commentators to criticize what they regard as empty or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing appearance over action.
The idea of signalling one's moral values had been studied for years prior to the conception of the "virtue signalling" neologism in 2015. Part of the idea of virtue signalling originates from the scientific study of signalling theory, initially conceived by Charles Darwin and his work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871. In this book, Darwin speaks to the idea of evolution by sexual selection, which posits that certain traits arise and are maintained in a species due to their ability to attract mates and therefore increase overall fitness, even when these traits would otherwise decrease an organism's relative fitness. Darwin suggested that a number of traits persisted in species simply due to a preference for that trait by the opposite sex. Similarly, evolutionary biological signalling theory suggests that the outward expression of moral values would provide information to mates allowing for signalled virtues to exist as sexually selected traits.
British journalist James Bartholomew is often credited with originating the term "virtue signalling" in an article in The Spectator in 2015. Bartholomew claimed credit for the creation of the phrase in later articles, mentioning that its popularity was likely due to a prior lack of terminology referring to the act. He suggests that the concept of virtue signalling had been around for much longer than the term itself. In his 2019 book, Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics and Free Speech, evolutionary psychologist and free-speech advocate Geoffrey Miller echoes that he had witnessed the act of virtue signalling for years, but did not quite have the right phrase to describe it.
Virtue signalling rose in popularity as a pejorative term, denouncing empty acts of public commitment to unexceptional good causes. In Bartholomew's original article, he describes virtue signalling as a public act with very little associated cost that is intended to inform others of one's socially acceptable alignment on an issue. Geoffrey Miller describes virtue signalling as an innate act, and something that all humans do and cannot avoid.
Some advocates of signalling theory use virtue signalling to describe the persistence or occurrence of various costly religious practices such as circumcision, fasting, snake handling, and trial by ordeal. This idea is that the participation in an act with a religious purpose serves as a way to signal one's dedication to the beliefs held by that religion, thereby signalling personal morality to onlookers.
In 2018, B.D. McClay wrote in The Hedgehog Review that signalling particularly flourished in online communities. It was unavoidable in digital interactions, because they lacked the qualities of offline life, such as spontaneity. When one filled out a list of one’s favorite books for Facebook, one was usually aware of what that list said about oneself.
In an economics investigation of 2018 it was shown that conspicuous virtue signalling (CVS) occurred by showing conspicuous consumption of particular products or brands on Facebook. The authors found that self-esteem was enhanced by self-oriented CVS.
Since the conception of the phrase, virtue signalling has received mixed reviews regarding its validity. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, psychologists Jillian Jordan and David Rand argue that virtue signalling (i.e. feigned outrage) is separable from true outrage towards a particular belief, but that in most cases individuals who are virtue signalling are in fact simultaneously experiencing true outrage. In an article from The Guardian, David Shariatmadari argues that the typicality of virtue signalling to show off one's own values makes it no different than the acts that it was supposed to abhor. That is, virtue signalling is designed to call out individuals on their lack of action, but the very act of doing so is an act of virtue signalling in itself. He addresses the recognition of one's virtue signalling as "smug" and points out that it comes from individuals with a false sense of power or superiority.
In The Guardian, Zoe Williams suggested the phrase was the "sequel insult to champagne socialist" while fellow Guardian writer David Shariatmadari says that while the term serves a purpose, its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword. Consequently, the antonym "vice signalling" has emerged to refer to blatant amorality.
- Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics and Free Speech (2019) by Geoffrey Miller. This publication is a collection of essays and a preface regarding Miller's thoughts on the history, personal relevance, and application of virtue signalling in pop-culture and academia. Miller applies the concept of virtue signalling to his own life living as a libertarian in a politically divided climate with a politically fertile upbringing, and criticizes the use of the term as it pertains to the expression of free speech. The collection holds varying viewpoints from over the years, and Miller himself points out that not all ideas presented in his book reflect his current attitudes. Given that the term "virtue signaling" has been around since around 2013 or 2015, his is the first book of its kind, addressing virtue signalling as a psychological and political tool.
- "virtue signalling - Definition of virtue signalling in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries - English. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
- Bulbulia, Joseph; Schjoedt, Uffe (2010). "Religious Culture and Cooperative Prediction under Risk: Perspectives from Social Neuroscience". Religion, Economy, and Cooperation. pp. 37–39. ISBN 3110246333.
- Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
- Peters, Mark (December 25, 2015). "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
- Academic usage predates pejorative:
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter; Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics Walter; Miller, Christian B. (2008). Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-19561-4.
- Payne, G. Tyge; Moore, Curt B.; Bell, R. Greg; Zachary, Miles A. (2013). "Signaling Organizational Virtue: an Examination of Virtue Rhetoric, Country-Level Corruption, and Performance of Foreign IPOs from Emerging and Developed Economies". Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal. 7 (3): 230–251. doi:10.1002/sej.1156. ISSN 1932-443X.
- Gugerty, Mary Kay (2009-08-01). "Signaling virtue: voluntary accountability programs among nonprofit organizations". Policy Sciences. 42 (3): 243–273. doi:10.1007/s11077-009-9085-3. ISSN 1573-0891.
- Miller, Geoffrey F. (June 2007). "Sexual Selection for Moral Virtues" (PDF). The Quarterly Review of Biology. 82 (2): 97–125. doi:10.1086/517857. ISSN 0033-5770. PMID 17583267.
- Darwin, Charles (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex /. London: John Murray. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.110063.
- "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". The Spectator. 2015-04-18. Retrieved 2019-11-24.
- Coaston, Jane (2017-08-11). "'Virtue Signaling' Isn't the Problem. Not Believing One Another Is". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
- "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". The Spectator. 2015-10-10. Retrieved 2019-11-24.
- "Despite 'virtue signalling', words tend to fail the Right". The Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Miller, Geoffrey. Virtue Signaling : Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech. ISBN 978-1-951555-00-9. OCLC 1127937178.
- Bulbulia, Joseph; Schjoedt, Uffe (2010-07-16), "Religious Culture and Cooperative Prediction under Risk: Perspectives from Social Neuroscience", Religion, Economy, and Cooperation, DE GRUYTER, pp. 35–60, doi:10.1515/9783110246339.35, ISBN 978-3-11-024632-2
- Bulbulia, Joseph; Atkinson, Quentin; Gray, Russell; Greenhill, Simon (April 2014), "Why do religious cultures evolve slowly? The cultural evolution of cooperative calling and the historical study of religions", Why do religious cultures evolve slowly? The cultural evolution of cooperative calling and the historical study of religions, Acumen Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84465-734-6, retrieved 2019-11-25
- "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes - The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- B.D. McClay (2018): Virtue Signaling, The Hedgehog Review, vol 20(2), p. 141–144.
- Wallace, E; Buil, I; de Chernatony, L (2018): ‘Consuming Good’ on Social Media: What Can Conspicuous Virtue Signalling on Facebook Tell Us About Prosocial and Unethical Intentions?, Journal of Business Ethics, doi: 10.1007/s10551-018-3999-7.
- Jordan, Jillian; Rand, David (2019-03-30). "Opinion | Are You 'Virtue Signaling'?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Shariatmadari, David (2016-01-20). "'Virtue-signalling' – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date | David Shariatmadari". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
- Robert Shrimsley (2019-05-10). "Once you're accused of virtue-signalling, you can't do anything right". Financial Times.
- Nick Cohen (2018-05-25). "The Tories are the masters of 'vice signalling'". Spectator.
- Ali Harb (2019-05-23). "Saudi activists and US lawmakers join call for end to 'sadistic' abuses by MBS". Middle East Eye.
- Miller, Geoffrey. Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech. ISBN 978-1-951555-00-9. OCLC 1127937178.