New study links virtue signaling to “Dark Triad” traits. Being accused of “virtue signaling” might sound nice to the uninitiated, but spend much time on social media and you know that it’s actually an accusation of insincerity. Virtue signalers are, essentially, phonies and showoffs — folks who adopt opinions and postures solely to garner praise and sympathy or whose good deeds are tainted by their need for everyone to see just how good they are. Combined with a culture that says only victimhood confers a right to comment on certain issues, it’s a big factor in online pile-ons and one that certainly contributes to social media platforms being such a bummer sometimes.
So: Here’s some fun new research looking at “the consequences and predictors of emitting signals of victimhood and virtue,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper — from University of British Columbia researchers Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino — details multiple studies the authors conducted on the subject.
Their conclusion? Psychopathic, manipulative, and narcissistic people are more frequent signalers of “virtuous victimhood.”
The so-called “dark triad” personality traits — Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy — lead to characteristics like “self-promotion, emotional callousness, duplicity, and tendency to take advantage of others,” the paper explains.
And “treated as a composite, the Dark Triad traits were significant predictors of virtuous victim signaling.”
This held true “even when controlling for factors that may make people vulnerable to being mistreated or disadvantaged in society (i.e., demographic and socioeconomic characteristics) as well as the importance they place on being a virtuous individual as part of their self-concept,” the researchers note.
They point out that virtue signaling is defined as “the conspicuous expression of moral values, done primarily with the intent of enhancing one’s standing within a social group.”
Meanwhile, victim signaling “may be used as a social influence tactic that can motivate recipients of the signal to voluntarily transfer resources to the signaler,” they explain. More from the paper’s theoretical background section:
An emerging literature on competitive victimhood documents the prevalence of victim signaling by various social groups and provides evidence for its functionality as a resource extraction strategy.
For instance, victim signaling justifies victim groups seeking retribution against alleged oppressors. Retribution often takes the form of demanding compensation through some kind of resource transfer from non-victims to the alleged victim. Claiming victim status can also facilitate resource transfer by conferring moral immunity upon the claimant. Moral immunity shields the alleged victim from criticism about the means they might use to satisfy their demands. In other words, victim status can morally justify the use of deceit, intimidation, or even violence by alleged victims to achieve their goals.
Relatedly, claiming victim status can lead observers to hold a person less blameworthy, excusing transgressions, such as the appropriation of private property or the infliction of pain upon others, that might otherwise bring condemnation or rebuke.
Finally, claiming victim status elevates the claimant’s psychological standing, defined as a subjective sense of legitimacy or entitlement to speak up. A person who has the psychological standing can reject or ignore any objections by non-victims to the unreasonableness of their demands. In contrast to victim signalers, people who do not publicly disclose their misfortune or disadvantage are less likely to reap the benefits of retributive compensation, moral immunity, deflection of blame, or psychological standing and would therefore find it difficult to initiate resource transfers.
The effectiveness of victim signaling as a resource transfer strategy follows the basic principles of signaling theory. Signaling theory posits that the transmission of information from one individual (the sender) to another (the receiver) can influence the behavior of the receiver. Signals can refer to any physical or behavioral trait of the sender, and are used by the senders to alter the behaviors of others to their own advantage.
Their results suggest that:
- A perceived victim signal can lead others to transfer resources to a victim, but that the motivation to do so is amplified when the victim signal is paired with a virtue signal” and “people high in the Dark Triad traits emit the dual signal more frequently.
- A positive correlation between the Dark Triad scores and the frequency of emitting the virtuous victim signal.
- Evidence of how these signals … can predict a person’s willingness to engage in and endorse ethically questionable behaviors …. frequent virtuous victim signalers are more willing to purchase counterfeit products and judge counterfeiters as less immoral compared with less frequent signalers, a pattern that was also observed when using participants’ Dark Triad scores instead of their signaling score,” and “frequent virtuous victim signalers were more likely to cheat and lie to earn extra monetary reward in [a] coin flip game.
- That a dimension referred to as amoral manipulation was the most reliable predictor of virtuous victim signaling.
- Frequent virtuous victim signalers were more likely to make inflated claims to justify receiving restitution for an alleged and ambiguous norm violation in an organizational context.
The authors stress that they “do not refute the claim that there are individuals who emit the virtuous victim signal because they experience legitimate harm and also conduct themselves in decent and laudable ways.”
About The Author
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a senior editor at Reason.