Status, signalling and the handicap principle


Jason Collins


January 9, 2012

Robin Hanson writes:

Zahavi’s seminal book on animal signaling tells how certain birds look high status by forcing food down the throat of other birds, who thereby seem low status. While this “altruism” does help low status birds survive, they rightly resent it, as their status loss outweighs their food gain.

In our society, “sympathy” by high status folks for low status folks usually functions similarly — it affirms their high status while giving little net benefit to the low status.

I would frame the babbler (the type of bird) example slightly differently. The babblers are not solely trying to appear high-status by dumping on low-status birds - status is determined through these activities by providing an accurate signal of their quality to their potential mates. Some of the relevant passages from Zahavi’s The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle are illustrative:

Not only are babblers, by all accounts, at least as altruistic as other group-breeding birds; close, detailed observation shows that babblers actually compete with one another for the “right” to be altruistic. Instead of expecting their partners to return tit for tat, they attempt to prevent them from doing their share. The theory of reciprocal altruism cannot explain why individuals compete for the chance to help other members of the group, let alone why they prevent others from helping in return. …

When there is a large difference in age between the feeder and the one being fed, the latter is sometimes eager to accept the food, and may even approach the feeder, making begging sounds. But in some 15 percent of cases, babblers try to avoid being fed by another bird. When a guard sees a higher-ranking comrade approaching it with food, to feed it and replace it on sentinel duty, it may sacrifice its guard post to avoid being fed. In other cases, the sentinel may close its beak tightly and refuse to accept the food being offered, even though it is hungry; it eagerly accepts a dry crumb of bread from us immediately after refusing a juicy insect from another babbler.

Sympathy of high-status people towards those of lower-status has little influence on their rank relative to those to whom they show sympathy. In the same way, derision of high-status people by low-status people does not change their relative pecking order. Sympathy might be a signal to obtain status, but the competition is not between the sympathiser and the recipient of their sympathy.

Conversely, the forcing of food and rejection of it by other babblers has a direct effect on rank in the eyes of the potential mate who receives the signal - for both the feeder and the bird that is fed. It is also likely to be a reliable signal. Giving food away is costly and can only be done by a babbler with the spare resources. Similarly, most birds accept the food, as rejecting it has a significant cost.

The giving and receipt of food by babblers is more akin to charity. Charitable giving is costly and a reliable signal of wealth. Competition to buy an artwork at a charity auction is similar to the competition between babblers to give food.

Of course, the charity auction example lacks the lower status person as an unwilling recipient. Examples with that feature might include insisting on paying a restaurant bill, or that someone accept $50 in a time of need. “I insist”. I expect there are many government interventions that also have this characteristic.

As a side note and following my recent post on biologists being important players in economics, I rate The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle as one of the best economics books.