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Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group.[1] The term was first used in signalling theory, to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious.[2] In recent years, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization 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 outward appearance over substantive action.[3][4]


Within signalling theoryEdit

Within evolutionary biology, signalling theory is a body of theoretical work examining communication between organisms. It is concerned with honest signals. For example, a peacock's tail is an honest signal of his fitness, since a less fit peacock would only be able to produce a less spectacular tail.

Similarly, signalling is considered within economics. A bank's impressive architecture may serve as a signal of its financial soundness, since a less well-endowed bank could only afford less impressive buildings. Qualifications can signal a person's ability to an employer, even when those qualifications are not strictly necessary, since a less able job applicant will not be able to achieve the same level of qualification.[5]

Unless signalling is considered, costly religious rituals look paradoxical in both evolutionary and economic terms. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation,[6] and religious traditions include costly rituals, performed publicly, as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment.[7] Such behavior is sometimes described as "virtue signalling".[2]

Pejorative usageEdit

In the late 2000s, many users on internet forums and social media defined the term differently from its academic meaning[citation needed] and turned it into a pejorative term.[citation needed] Examples of behavior described as virtue signalling include changing Facebook profile pictures to support a cause, participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge, offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy, celebrity speeches during award shows, 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]

The blog LessWrong discussed the underlying concept as early as February 2009.[8][9]

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 US Federal government's reactions to claims of on-campus rape.[10][11]

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

In April 2015, writing in The Spectator, 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 that "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 blogger 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]

Helen Lewis, writing for the New Statesman, 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]

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. 
  3. ^ a b c d 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 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. ^ Yudkowsky, Eliezer (February 17, 2009). "Cynical About Cynicism". LessWrong. If people are trying to signal virtue through their beliefs, then a rationalist may have to advocate contrasting beliefs that don't signal virtue. 
  9. ^ Eliezer Yudkowsky (March 20, 2009). "Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate". LessWrong. ...trying to signal their cynical sophistication or something. 
  10. ^ "Caught Lying by George Will, the Left Lies About George Will!". PJ Media. June 22, 2014. It's Moral Preening, Virtue Signalling, Competitive Pearl-Clutching, Flashing Tribal Signs—call it what you will—it's a Superior Dance beyond the Church Lady's wildest imagination. Screaming 'racist' and hitting the fainting couch—PUBLICLY! of course—demonstrates how very sensitive you are, that you're so far from being a racist that you can sense racism where mere mortals cannot... Best of all, you're more sensitive than Those People, which gives you license to heap punishment on them in whichever way you deem most deliciously vile. They're not fragile. They're not offended. They're not the least bit sensitive or caring. They're out for blood, which their ostentatious virtue entitles them to spill. We're fools to let them get away with this aggressive bullsplat this long. 
  11. ^ a b c Paul McFedries. "Virtue Signalling". Word Spy. 
  12. ^ a b Hobbs, Julia (17 February 2017). "What Is Virtue Signalling? And Should We Feel Bad About Doing It?". Vague (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". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved 5 October 2017. 
  17. ^ Bartholemew, James (October 10, 2015). "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". 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.