Most traits we signal are continuous variables: attractiveness, diligence, intelligence, loyalty etc. However, often the signals onlookers receive about our traits are binary, as are the rewards: did we get a job or scholarship, did we meet a deadline or arrive on time, did that girl reject your advances, etc? When there is a threshold like this it is especially desirable to fall on the good side. Let’s say you get a job if you look 5/10 or better to the selectors. The difference in effort required to move from 4.9 to 5.1 is small, but the difference in how you look to distant others can be large. If the onlooker knows nothing about you, if you don’t get the job you look on average like a 2.5 but if you do get it you look on average like a 7.5.

If the process is competitive, as is the case for most job selections, this means everyone tries very hard to signal effectively and the threshold for apparent competence rises. This is an arms war so overall nobody benefits except the employer who get a more credible signal of dedication and interest in the job. When a process is not competitive, as where people work to meet a deadline in order to seem competent, lots of people will work hard to finish something just before a deadline to avoid looking like they couldn’t do so. If deadlines make it easier for a group to coordinate or you need to overcome personal time inconsistency, this is useful.

This helps explains our caution in telling others about the things we apply for. If we fall on the bad side of the threshold we don’t want them to know we even tried. If we are risk averse with our reputations, this helps explain our reluctance to apply for jobs that we might not get or flirt with people who might reject us, even when we use only a little time and effort in the attempt. It probably contributes to the distress of a divorce or breakup; a marriage that is just short of a divorce can look OK from the outside but if your wife leaves you for all a distant onlooker knows you were a terrible husband. The less effort can substitute for underlying quality when we especially care about the signal we’re going to send, the more threatening a threshold.

These effects should be greater for people who don’t know us well relative to people who do know us well, but in some cases our certification of competence will also be important to our close friends.

Any other consequences of these thresholds you can think of?

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