According to The Guardian, the term has been used since at least 2004 and appeared in religious academic works in 2011 and 2010. However, an earlier, indirect usage, in which the meaning is nevertheless clear, may be found in David Foster Wallace's essay "Tense Present," published in Harper's Magazine in 2001: "PCE [Politically Correct English] functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker ..."
According to an article in The Spectator in 2015, British journalist James Bartholomew is often credited with originating the term. Bartholomew claimed credit for its creation in later articles. Merriam-Webster editor Emily Brewster describes virtue signalling as an academic-sounding counterpart to the term humblebrag, a term coined by Harris Wittels in 2010.
Psychologists Jillian Jordan and David Rand argue that virtue signalling is separable from genuine outrage towards a particular belief, but that in most cases, individuals who are virtue signalling are, in fact, simultaneously experiencing genuine outrage. Linguist David Shariatmadari argues in The Guardian that the very act of accusing someone of virtue signalling is an act of virtue signalling in itself and that its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword. Zoe Williams, also writing for The Guardian, suggested the phrase was the "sequel insult to champagne socialist".
Virtue signalling may incorporate some or all elements found in political correctness, self-righteousness, and moral superiority. Bartholomew's original article describes virtue signalling as a public act with minimal associated cost intended to inform others of one's socially acceptable alignment on an issue.
Angela Nagle, in her book Kill All Normies, described the internet reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video as "what we might now call 'virtue signaling'", and that "the usual cycles of public displays of outrage online began as expected with inevitable competitive virtue signaling" in the aftermath of the killing of Harambe. 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 favourite books for Facebook, one was usually aware of what that list said about oneself.
Blackout Tuesday, a collective action that was ostensibly intended to combat racism and police brutality that was carried out on June 2, 2020, mainly by businesses and celebrities through social media in response to the killings of several black people by police officers, was criticized as a form of virtue signalling for the initiative's "lack of clarity and direction".
In addition to individuals, companies have also been accused of virtue signalling in marketing, public relations and brand communication. Conspicuous consumption has been described as a form of consumer virtue signalling, and the social desirability bias of survey respondents may complicate business data gathering.
Greg Gutfeld, reflecting on why he loves cinema but hates the Academy Awards, bemoaned the fact that the American film industry had abandoned "cinematic escape" and "shared human experience" in favour of virtue signalling through such award shows: "Traditional story lines are so old—as old as humanity. Which is why they worked. Movies used to be about entertaining us—all of us. Yet the Oscars recast the industry as an engine for the new religion of identity politics." Sean Spicer wrote similarly that, "while virtue-signaling celebrities and movies with a 'message' dominate the award shows, they seldom dominate the box office". He added that "mainstream Hollywood critics" help facilitate this trend with the overwhelming support of films like Knock Down the House and dislike of films such as Sticks & Stones, contrary to public audience approval as shown by the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Bill Maher, in a monologue on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, accused "Hollywood liberals" of virtue signalling by exclusively nominating "depressing" movies in the category of Best Picture for the 93rd Academy Awards (2021). "Academy nominations used to say, 'What great movies we make'. Now they say, 'Look what good people we are,'" Maher said, lamenting the feeling that "Hollywood used to know how to make a movie that was about something, a movie for adults that was also entertaining and not just depressing", attributing liberals' preference for such sad movies to the possibility that "being sad allows you to feel like you're doing something about a problem without actually having to do anything".
- "virtue signalling – Definition of virtue signalling". Oxford Dictionaries – English. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
- Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
- Bulbulia, Joseph (2012). "Spreading order: religion, cooperative niche construction, and risky coordination problems". Biology & Philosophy. 27 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1007/s10539-011-9295-x. PMC 3223343. PMID 22207773.
- Pyysiäinen, Ilkka (2010). Religion, Economy, and Cooperation. De Gruyter. p. 36. ISBN 978-3-11-024632-2.
- Wallace, David Foster (April 2001). "Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage" (PDF). Harper's Magazine: 39–58.
- "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". The Spectator. 2015-04-18. Retrieved 2019-11-24.
- "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". The Spectator. 2015-10-10. Retrieved 2019-11-24.
- "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes - The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Jordan, Jillian; Rand, David (2019-03-30). "Opinion | Are You 'Virtue Signaling'?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
- Nagle, Angela (2017). Kill All Normies. ISBN 978-1-78535-544-8. LCCN 2017934035. Retrieved June 21, 2020 – via Google Books.
- B. D. McClay (2018): "Virtue Signaling", The Hedgehog Review, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 141–144.
- Savage, Mark (June 2, 2020). "TV, radio and music stars mark 'Blackout Tuesday'" – via www.bbc.com.
"Outpouring of non-black support on Blackout Tuesday met with appreciation, skepticism" – via The Globe and Mail.
Hornery, Andrew (June 6, 2020). "There's more to activism than Instagram black squares". The Sydney Morning Herald.
"A social media 'blackout' enthralled Instagram. But did it do anything?". NBC News.
Framke, Caroline (June 2, 2020). "Why Posting Black Boxes for #BlackoutTuesday, or Hashtags Without Action, Is Useless (Column)".
- "As Brands Rush to Speak Out, Many Statements Ring Hollow". The Business of Fashion. June 2, 2020.
- "Beware of Virtue Signaling in Brand Communications About COVID-19". Social Media Today.
- Wallace, E; Buil, I; de Chernatony, L (March 2020)[21 August 2018]: "'Consuming Good' on Social Media: What Can Conspicuous Virtue Signalling on Facebook Tell Us About Prosocial and Unethical Intentions?" Journal of Business Ethics, 162, pp.577–592. doi:10.1007/s10551-018-3999-7.
- Gutfeld, Greg (2019). The Gutfeld Monologues: Classic Rants from the Five. Threshold Editions. p. 139. ISBN 9781501190735.
- Spicer, Sean (2020). "An Outsider: Dancing with the Stars". Leading America: President Trump's Commitment to People, Patriotism, and Capitalism. Center Street. ISBN 9781546059455.
- Nakamura, Reid (April 10, 2021). "Bill Maher: 'Depressing' Oscar Nominees Are 'Like Traffic School at the Holocaust Museum' (Video)". The Wrap. Retrieved April 25, 2021.
- Miller, Geoffrey (2019). Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech. Cambrian Moon. ISBN 978-1951555009.
- Orlitzky, Marc (2018). "9. Virtue Signaling: Oversocialized 'Integrity' in a Politically Correct World". In Orlitzky, Marc; Monga, Manjit (eds.). Integrity in Business and Management: Cases and Theory. Routledge Studies in Business Ethics. Routledge. pp. 172–182. ISBN 978-1-138-80877-5. LCCN 2017011721.