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18.3 Signaling

Learning Objectives

  1. Why do people spend so much money on things that aren’t much better than the cheap versions?
  2. Why do people who study ancient Greek get good jobs that don’t involve reading ancient Greek?

An interesting approach to solving informational problems involves signalingExpenditures of time or money whose purpose is to convince others of something..Signaling was introduced by Nobel laureate Michael Spence in his dissertation, part of which was reprinted in “Job Market Signaling,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 87 (August 1973): 355–74. Signaling, in economic jargon, means expenditures of time or money whose purpose is to convince others of something. Thus, people signal wealth by wearing Rolex watches, driving expensive cars, or sailing in the America’s Cup. They signal erudition by tossing quotes from Kafka or Tacitus into conversations. They signal being chic by wearing the “right” clothes and listening to cool music. Signaling is also rampant in the animal world, from peacock feathers to elk battles, and it is the subject of a vibrant and related research program.

A university education serves not just to educate but also to signal the ability to learn. Businesses often desire employees who are able to adapt to changing circumstances and who can easily and readily learn new strategies and approaches. Education signals such abilities because it will be easier for quick learners to perform well at university. A simple model suffices to illustrate the point. Suppose there are two types of people. Type A has a low cost cA of learning, and type B has a higher cost cB of learning. It is difficult to determine from an interview whether someone is type A or type B. Type A is worth more to businesses, and the competitive wage wA (expressed as a present value of lifetime earnings) for type A’s is higher than the wage wB for type B’s.

A person can signal that she is a type A by pursuing a sufficient amount of education. Suppose the person devotes an amount of time x to learning at university, thus incurring the cost cA x. If x is large enough so that wAcA x > wB > wAcB x, it pays the type A to obtain the education, but not the type B, if education in fact signals that the student is type A. Thus, a level of education x in this case signals a trait (ease of learning) that is valued by business, and it does so by voluntary choice—those with a high cost of learning choose not to obtain the education, even though they could do it. This works as a signal because only type A would voluntarily obtain the education in return for being perceived to be a type A.

There are several interesting aspects to this kind of signaling. First, the education embodied in x need not be valuable in itself; the student could be studying astronomy or ancient Greek, neither of which are very useful in most businesses but are nevertheless strong signals of the ability to learn. Second, the best subject matter for signaling is that in which the difference in cost between the type desired by employers and the less desirable type is greatest—that is, where cBcA is greatest. Practical knowledge is somewhat unlikely to make this difference great; instead, challenging and abstract problem solving may be a better separator. Clearly, it is desirable to have the subject matter be useful, if it can still do the signaling job. But interpreting long medieval poems could more readily signal the kind of flexible mind desired in management than studying accounting, not because the desirable type is good at it or that it is useful, but because the less desirable type is so much worse at it.

Third, one interprets signals by asking, “What kinds of people would make this choice?” while understanding that the person makes the choice hoping to send the signal. Successful law firms have very fine offices, generally much finer than the offices of their clients. Moreover, there are back rooms at most law firms, where much of the real work is done, that aren’t nearly so opulent. The purpose of the expensive offices is to signal success, essentially proclaiming, “We couldn’t afford to waste money on such expensive offices if we weren’t very successful. Thus, you should believe we are successful.”

The law firm example is similar to the education example. Here, the cost of the expenditures on fancy offices is different for different law firms because more successful firms earn more money and thus value the marginal dollar less. Consequently, more successful firms have a lower cost of a given level of office luxury. What is interesting about signaling is that it is potentially quite wasteful. A student spends 4 years studying boring poems and dead languages in order to demonstrate a love of learning, and a law firm pays $75,000 for a conference table that it rarely uses and gets no pleasure out of in order to convince a client that the firm is extremely successful. In both cases, it seems like a less costly solution should be available. The student can take standardized tests, and the law firm could show its win-loss record to the potential client. But standardized tests may measure test-taking skills rather than learning ability, especially if what matters is the learning ability over a long time horizon. Win-loss records can be “massaged,” and in the majority of all legal disputes, the case settles and both sides consider themselves the winner. Consequently, statistics may not be a good indicator of success, and the expensive conference table may be a better guide.

Key Takeaways

  • Signaling means expenditures of time or money whose purpose is to convince others of something.
  • A university education signals the ability to learn. The education need not be useful in itself to be helpful in signaling. The best subject matter for signaling is something that is easy for fast learners and difficult for slower learners.
  • Signals are interpreted by asking, “What kinds of people would make this choice?” while understanding that the person makes the choice hoping to send the signal.