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Virtue signalling is a pejorative for the conspicuous expression of moral values.[1] Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory to describe a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious.[2] In recent years, the term has become more commonly used by commentators as a pejorative to describe empty or superficial support of certain political views and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing appearance over action, or for not holding the same values which that group considers to be morally unquestionable.[3][4][5]


Academic usageEdit

Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain cooperation among group members.[6] Costly religious rituals look paradoxical in both evolutionary and economic terms unless signalling is considered. Such costly public rituals act as hard-to-fake signs of commitment.[7] There are two papers published by Joseph Bulbulia and colleagues in which such behavior is referred to as "virtue signalling".[2][8]

Signalling virtues such as environmental responsibility has been associated with economic decisions of consumers, such as buying "green" products and other forms of conspicuous conservation.[9][10]

Pejorative usageEdit

In the mid-2010s, many users on internet forums and social media gave "virtue-signalling" a pejorative sense when they denounced such empty acts of public commitment to unexceptionable good causes such as changing Facebook profile pictures to support a cause, participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy, celebrity speeches during award shows, and politicians pandering to constituents on ideological issues.[4]

Lexicographer Orin Hargraves says that the term stems from social media, which removes barriers to broadcasting sentiments. Hargraves links the term to the "-shaming" category of neologisms, such as "prayer-shaming", which can have an opposite meaning to virtue signalling. Merriam-Webster editor Emily Brewster described it as an academic-sounding counterpart to "humblebrag", a term coined by Harris Wittels in 2010.[4]

On June 22, 2014, a comment posted on a PJ Media article used the term "Virtue Signalling" to describe several articles critical of a piece by George Will about the United States government's reactions to claims of on-campus rape.[11]

An article by The Boston Globe mistakenly cited a usage from 2004.[4][11][a]

Writing in The Spectator in April 2015, British author James Bartholomew used the term to describe public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitude without any associated risk or sacrifice.[12] Bartholomew specifically criticized in-store advertising at Whole Foods Market where a picture of a mother carrying her child on her shoulders under the caption "VALUES MATTER...We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food—one that champions what's good".[13][14][15] He stated: "This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called 'virtue signalling'—indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous".[13] He also applied the phrase to several other media, academic and political figures.[13] According to Bartholomew, virtue signalling can be either declarations of support, or declarations of hate towards negative things, as a way to hide self-aggrandizing intentions of the signal.[16][12][3]

In a later article, Bartholomew incorrectly claimed to have invented the phrase.[17] Bartholomew's claims have been challenged by The Boston Globe[4] and The Guardian, although both credited Bartholomew with popularizing the term.[3]


Adam Smith Institute Executive Director Sam Bowman opined that the meaning of the term popularised by James Bartholomew misuses the concept of signalling and encourages lazy thinking.[5] In The Guardian, Zoe Williams suggested the phrase was the "sequel insult to champagne socialist"[18] 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.[3]

Writing for the New Statesman, Helen Lewis blamed virtue signalling for the Labour Party's defeat in the 2015 general election, suggesting that the desire to be seen as holding virtuous opinions leads political activists to focus on issues such as nuclear disarmament that are lofty and remote to common voters, resulting in an echo chamber effect that led Labour strategists to underestimate support for Conservative policies.[19]


A criticism of accusing another person of virtue signalling is that—as Jane Coaston in the The New York Times notes—in doing so ironically one is "trying to signal something about their own values: that they are pragmatic, appropriately cynical, in touch with the painful facts of everyday life".[20] In The Guardian, David Shariatmadari argues that this makes it "indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out [reproach]: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority."[3] Sam Bowman says of this that "saying virtue signalling is hypocritical. It’s often used to try to show that the accuser is above virtue signalling and that their own arguments really are sincere. Of course, this is really just another example of virtue signalling!"[5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The Boston Globe cited an etymology blog Wordspy,[4] which cited a post to internet forum Something Awful.[11] This post was made in 2015, but the author of the post registered an account in 2004, which Wordspy misinterpreted to be the date of the post.


  1. ^ "virtue signalling - Definition of virtue signalling in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries - English. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
  2. ^ a b 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 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b c d e Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Peters, Mark (December 25, 2015). "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  5. ^ a b c Bowman, S. (2016) Stop Saying 'Virtue Signalling' blog post for the Adam Smith Institute
  6. ^ Steadman, L.; Palmer, C. (2008). The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success. Paradigm.
  7. ^ Irons, W. (2001) Religion as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment, in The Evolution of Commitment, Randolph Nesse (ed.) New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 292–309.
  8. ^ Bulbulia, Joseph; Atkinson, Quentin; Gray, Russell; Greenhill, Simon (2014). "Why do religious cultures evolve slowly? The cultural evolution of cooperative calling and the historical study of religions" (PDF). Mind, morality and magic: Cognitive science approaches in biblical studies. Acumen Publishing. p. 208.
  9. ^ Shariff, Azim; Bonnefon, Jean-François; Rahwan, Iyad (11 September 2017). "Psychological roadblocks to the adoption of self-driving vehicles". Nature Human Behaviour. The Multidisciplinary Nature of Machine Intelligence. Springer Nature. 1 (10): 694–696. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0202-6. Virtue signalling is a powerful motivation for buying ethical products, but only when the ethicality is conspicuous.
  10. ^ Griskevicius, Vladas; Tybur, Joshua M.; Bram, Van den Bergh (March 2010). "Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 98 (3): 392–404. doi:10.1037/a0017346.
  11. ^ a b c McFedries, Paul. "Virtue Signalling". Word Spy.
  12. ^ a b Hobbs, Julia (17 February 2017). "What Is Virtue Signalling? And Should We Feel Bad About Doing It?". Vogue (UK edition). Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  13. ^ a b c Bartholemew, James (April 18, 2015). "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". Spectator. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  14. ^ "Values Matter". Whole Foods Market. October 20, 2014.
  15. ^ "Whole Foods Market launches first-ever national campaign". Whole Foods Market. October 20, 2014.
  16. ^ Ambrosino, Brandon (31 August 2016). "The Politics of Kindness in 2016". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  17. ^ Bartholemew, James (October 10, 2015). "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". The Spectator. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  18. ^ Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  19. ^ Lewis, Helen (July 22, 2015). "The echo chamber of social media is luring the left into cosy delusion and dangerous insularity". New Statesman. Retrieved 2016-04-15.
  20. ^ Coaston, Jane (2017-08-08). "'Virtue Signaling' Isn't the Problem. Not Believing One Another Is". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-01-17.