Adam Zerner

Impressive vs honest signaling

Epistemic status: Musings.

One thing that I am particularly happy with in my life is my girlfriend Alex. Here is the story of how we met.

I was 23 years old and had never had a girlfriend before. Heck, I never even dated. It's not that I wasn't interested. I was less interested than most, but I had some interest. I just didn't think I'd be able to find someone who I'm compatible with.

A friend of mine encouraged me to give Tinder a shot. I had been off and on about it. I had a few conversations but didn't really take it seriously and didn't spend much time with it. Then I had a job interview in Vegas, and I figured it could be fun to try meeting someone to date while I was there.

I went about it much differently from how others use Tinder. I mostly paid attention to the profile descriptions. Very few people actually wrote anything in their profiles. I wasn't interested in that. If you only write a sentence or two on your profile, I feel like that says something about either how deep you are, or, more charitably, what you're looking to get out of Tinder.

Anyway, I would swipe through, rejecting everyone who had these two sentence profiles. Then when people had longer profiles, I would skim them. If they weren't interesting, I'd reject. If they were, I'd read them in full, and then make a decision.

There weren't many people who I liked, but there were a few. Then when I came across Alex's profile, I was really excited. She had a somewhat long profile. It touched on rationality, self-improvement, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. And she was cute. So I super liked her.

To my surprise, she liked me back! I actually remember where I was. I was in the Luxor hotel. The one that looks like a pyramid and has that super powerful light beam that shoots up into the sky. I remember walking off to the side and writing out this really long message to her.

I talked about all of these wacky things that people don't talk about in initial messages to people you connect with on Tinder. Actually, my mind is fuzzy on the details. It definitely had a lot to do with how rationality and self-improvement is very important to me. And how I have crazy ideas of making a ton of money with startups and figuring out how to use that money to "save the world". I think I might have mentioned that I don't envision ever getting married or having kids.

To my surprise again, she messaged me back and was really interested! Almost six years later, we're still together.

In contrast, I remember when my cousin was dating, he would tell me about how he was frustrated with how girls would reject him without giving him a chance. Eg. he would match with them on some online dating site, exchange a few icebreaker-type messages, and then they'd ghost him.

He's a smart guy and also pretty honest. His assessment was that it couldn't have been something he had said. It's not like they had any important new information about him that could rationally be a good reason to reject him. "Oh, you seemed kinda cool at first, but now that you said X, Y and Z, I interpret those as bad signals, and now I'm not interested enough to continue talking to you." It wasn't like that, is what my cousin was saying. There was nothing he said that plausibly could have been an X, Y or Z.

It never made sense to me why he was so frustrated with this though. If you disagree so strongly with how the girl went about this, then she's doing you a favor by rejecting you. She probably isn't right for you. Would you rather realize that you guys aren't compatible after a few bad dates? Or have a few dates but then when things get more serious and you're in a relationship, go through a nasty break up? I know I would rather just know ahead of time, upfront, and avoid all of that.

So then, for me, in the context of dating, I would want to focus on honest signaling, not impressive signaling. I would want to display who I really am. The raw version. I wouldn't want to focus on impressing them.

Well, I guess I am oversimplifying this. I can imagine some situations where it'd make sense to deviate from this raw, baseline, honest version of yourself, and signal something a little more impressive. The main argument my cousin had for wanting to do this is that it significantly opens up your pool of options. For example, if you're honest, maybe you only get one date a month, but if you act impressive, you get four. And maybe you end up hitting it off with date #3. Acting impressive opens up that possibility for you.

My counter to this is that, if you really are compatible with this date #3 girl, why would she have rejected your honest signaling in the first place? And then his response is that, well, sometimes that's just how it is.

I can agree with that. But I'll also point out that in doing so, you risk false positives. Ie. the girl likes the impressive signals you are putting out, you guys have a good time and start feeling like you're compatible, but then issues arise down the line. This is a false positive. Your initial feeling of "we're compatible" turned out to be wrong.

Of course, with honest signaling, you risk the opposite: false negatives. Maybe people reject you (a negative), but in the counterfactual world where you signaled more impressiveness and they gave you a chance, you guys turn out to be really compatible (the negative was false/wrong).

There are certainly tradeoffs here. Personally I'm a big fan of honest signaling, but I also acknowledge that the best approach depends on the situation, and that there is a whole spectrum where "honest" and "impressive" are only the extremes. (Actually, that's not true. You could also give off unimpressive signals. Think Spongebob on Opposte Day.)

Another situation where you should think about honest vs impressive signaling is when searching for a job. It's the same situation where you have to make tradeoffs regarding false negatives and false positives. But I think that here, it isn't necessarily obvious to people that false positives are a problem that you'd want to avoid.

Imagine the following situation. You apply for a job. It seems like a good opportunity. You work hard to do well in the interview and impress them. In fact, you are so successful at this that you actually get the job, when in reality you aren't really qualified. Ie. your true skills are a 4/10 but you do such a good job signalling impressive stuff in the interview that they perceive your skills as an 8/10 and they hire you. Why is this an issue? Well, continue telling yourself this story. What happens next?

You show up to work, and after spending some time onboarding, you are given tasks. But these tasks are above your head. It's too much for you. Your skills aren't sufficient. You've set yourself up to fail. So you do your best, but at the end of the day you aren't able to perform like they expected you to. You know it. They know it. You feel anxious about it. It's awkward. They start eyeing you with a hint of skepticism.

One possibility here is that they they fire you. In which case, now you have to start applying to jobs again, which could take a few months, perhaps. I bet if this happened you would have preferred to not have accepted the job in the first place. It would have been better to hold out for a better fit.

Of course, another possibility is that they don't fire you. From what I can tell, companies are way too conservative about firing people, so this is very plausible. I get this impression from my personal experience working at four different companies, from talking to friends, and also from the fact that I see a lot of advice in blog posts and stuff about firing more aggressively (and taking more time to hire.)

But even if you keep the job, I still feel skeptical that it'd work out well for you. When you're not meeting their expectations it's easy to feel anxious, and that's no way to live.

Then again, a lot of times you just need to send impressive signals in order to get the job, but then once you get it, the job isn't actually that hard and you can manage it. Or maybe you are in above your head, but you can solve that problem by working a little harder for a few months, ramp up on your skillset, and then you'll be fine.

Here's another situation. If you're looking for something very specific, it could make sense to go hard on the honest signaling. Or even on unimpressive signaling!

For example, suppose you really care about asynchronous communication. I think the impressive approach would be to tell them that you have these preferences but that you also are a "team player" and can be flexible when synchronous communication makes more sense. The honest approach would be "I can do synchronous, but I don't want to and I think that people often resort to it way too quickly." Ie. the honest approach would be to "take a stance". And then the unimpressive signaling approach would be to throw a little temper trantrum and ramble about how much you hate meetings.

Again, there are the same false negative and false positive considerations at play. But if you have a really strong preference for this — you really, really don't want to end up at a place that has annoying synchronous communication — then honest or even unimpressive signaling could make sense. It would mean a low rate of false positives. Ie. it'd be very unlikely that a place that does a lot of synchronous communication would want to hire you if you gave off those signals, and maybe that is something you want to prioritize. But that would come at the expense of more false negatives of course.

A final place I can think of where this idea of honest vs impressive signaling is relevant is with friends. Well, "impressive" probably isn't the right term here, but bear with me.

Imagine that there is a friend you have. You've been friends with them for years, let's say. But for whatever reason, you haven't been hitting it off lately. One option you have is to try to "force it". To try extra hard to be fun and pleasant to be around. Maybe that is the kick you guys need, your relationship gets out of it's funk, and it returns to it's normal awesome state.

Another option is to not force it. To embrace the fact that you guys haven't been hitting it off, and to not try to improve that situation. Sometimes there is something you can do to fix it, but other times, well, people just grow apart. They're not compatible anymore, and it isn't worth maintaining the friendship. If that's the case, then you'd do well to give off an honest signal that you in fact have not been having much fun with this person recently. Such a signal would probably lead you down the road of spending less time together, instead of the road where you both "force it", continue to spend a lot of time together, but don't actually enjoy that time spent very much.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

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