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Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values.[1] Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory and describes a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious.[2] In recent years,[when?] the term has been more commonly used within groups to criticize those who are seen to value the expression of virtue over action.

Academic usageEdit

Religious rituals such as snake handling may be explainable as costly signals.

Evolutionary biologyEdit

In evolutionary biology, signalling theory is a body of theories as "models" examining animal communication. 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.

Religion as a costly signal, in evolutionary biology signalling theory, describes costly religious rituals such as circumcision, fasting and abstinence, snake handling and trial by ordeal. Signalling theorists observe that expressions of religious piety signal moral commitments. Costly signalling holds that recognition of virtue negates cost and thus "combines moral policing with virtue signalling".[3]

Contract theoryEdit

In contract theory, signalling is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). For example, potential employees signal ability by acquiring education credentials. The principal thus believes the agent's credentials signal greater ability.[4] A bank with impressive architecture signals its greater financial soundness than a bank with less impressive architecture.[5]

Pejorative usageEdit

A person performing the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Ice Bucket Challenge for charity. The activity has been criticised as virtue-signalling.

"Virtue-signalling" is also used as a pejorative term, denouncing empty acts of public commitment to unexceptional 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.[6]

The term was popularised by James Bartholomew in an article in The Spectator on 18 April 2015 to mean "public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice".[7]

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.[6]

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.[8][9]


Jane Coaston of The New York Times notes that in using the term "virtue signalling" 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".[10] In The Guardian, David Shariatmadari argues that this makes it "indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out" adding that it is "smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority."[11] Neoliberal political theorist and economist Sam Bowman, criticized the term claiming 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."[5]

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"[12] 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.[11] Consequently, the antonym "vice signalling" has emerged to refer to blatant amorality.[13][14][15]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "virtue signalling – Definition of virtue signalling". Oxford Dictionaries – English. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
  2. ^ 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. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Connelly, B. L.; Certo, S. T.; Ireland, R. D.; Reutzel, C. R. (2011). "Signaling theory: A review and assessment". Journal of Management. 37 (1): 39–67. doi:10.1177/0149206310388419.
  5. ^ a b c Bowman, S. (2016) Stop Saying 'Virtue Signalling' blog post for the Adam Smith Institute
  6. ^ a b Peters, Mark (December 25, 2015). "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  7. ^ "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". The Spectator. 2015-04-18. Retrieved 2019-06-02.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  12. ^ Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  13. ^ Robert Shrimsley (2019-05-10). "Once you're accused of virtue-signalling, you can't do anything right". Financial Times.
  14. ^ Nick Cohen (2018-05-25). "The Tories are the masters of 'vice signalling'". Spectator.
  15. ^ Ali Harb (2019-05-23). "Saudi activists and US lawmakers join call for end to 'sadistic' abuses by MBS". Middle East Eye.