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Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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Costly Signaling

Costly Signaling Theory says that although costly, altruistic acts may benefit the altruist indirectly, by establishing a ‘reputation’. By demonstrating the sincerity of one's good intentions, costly signalling encourages others to engage in reciprocal altruism. Since a costly act shows ability and access to plentiful resources it may also give advantage as regards mate selection.

Smith and Bird state that for behaviour to count as constly signalling, it must be:

1. Beneficial to others
2. Observable by others
3. Costly to the signaller in ways that can't be reciprocated
4. Associated with some strength or fitness of the signaller

Frequently cited examples of costly signals are drawn from human hunter gatherer societies, for example the laying on of public feasts or other elaborate public displays. This is sometimes mentioned in connection with philanthropy as "competitive altruism". As forms of public display go, this is socially far more positive than wasteful signalling methods such as Veblen's "Conspicuous consumption".


E. A. Smith & R. Bird: (1999) Turtle hunting and tombstone opening - Public generosity as costly signaling, Elsevier Evolution and Human Behavior 21 pp.245-261
Francis McAndrew: (2002) New Evolutionary Perspectives on Altruism - Multilevel-Selection and Costly-Signaling Theories, Current directions in Psychological Science 11 (Issue 2) pp.79-82
Thorstein Veblen: (1902) The Theory of the Leisure Class - An Economic Study of Institutions, Macmillan New York
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