Monday, June 5, 2017

Swearing as a signal

Signals are convey information only if they are costly to use.  Otherwise, it too difficult to interpret what they mean.

To see this, consider what you learn when you hear someone use the F-word.  Some of my friends use it almost as punctuation, so it means very little.  However, when someone who abhors swearing uses it, I know to pay attention because it is costly for the sender to convey information in this manner.

Analytically, think of the sender as having two potential kinds of information:  crucial information or moderately important information.  Only the sender knows the type of information, and it can be communicated with or without swearing.  It doesn't pay for the sender to incur the costs of swearing to communicate moderately important information.  Rather, swearing is reserved for communicating crucial information.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting take on the problem of adverse selection. I had not considered the cost of the signal, even after my readings. However, the concept of the signal not being imitated by those affected does imply that there’s some cost to signaling. In this case, swearing as a signal is only expensive if you aren’t someone accustomed to swearing. In our house, for example, I rarely swear, and was raised to find this language offensive. Living with my husband, and having raised three adult children, I also know that for two of the four, swearing is, as you said, punctuation and meaningless. However, before I realized that his swearing wasn’t a sign of frustration or anger, I would get very upset when my husband swore, thinking that he was deeply unhappy about something. Now, though, I have become more accustomed to hearing this, and rarely am concerned that it signals a problem needing resolved. Taking this a step further, I could use this type of adverse selection and signaling information to teach my staff about communication with outside agencies. If the outside agency has moderately important information, they will email it. If they feel they have critical information, then they will call. Similarly, if my staff have an urgent need for information, they should probably call or have a face to face discussion, versus emailing the request. Therefore, the urgency of the request is directly related to the method used to communicate it.