Virtue Signaling: How Do the Posers in Your Culture Try and Fake Being the Coolest?

In any ecosystem, you’re going to get posers. And one of the best examples of a poser in a genetic context is the Scarlet King Snake. Why go to the trouble of making your own venom when you can just look like a snake that does? The Scarlet King Snake fakes it with no intention of making it (venom).

The same is true within the ecosystem of a culture. There are people in any community who are the coolest. They’re the best at whatever the culture respects. Take, for example, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. There are two guys named Og and Thrak and they both hunt and fish for food for the tribe. Og is a person of principle. He never misrepresents his hunting abilities and is totally honest about his failures. On the other hand, Thrak is more than happy bending the truth. Between the time when he catches a fish or takes down an elk and he gets back to the tribe, it grows.

However, for Thrak to get away with this, there needs to be a lack of accountability. In a hunter-gatherer tribe, there’s a built in check on fishing and hunting stories. People eat what they catch. Thrak can CLAIM he caught a twelve-foot trout but people are going to see it. Thrak can say he took down that elk single-handed but he’s with a tribe of people who are all inside each other’s Dunbar Number. Thrak’s people know Thrak and if he gets a reputation for being a lying sack of poo then he’s going to get called out.

However, in a large-scale society, those accountability mechanisms can easily break down. Thrak can pose much more effectively. He can make himself seem way cooooooooooler than he actually is. However, the way that each culture does this depends on what the culture values. For example, hipsters value newness, specialness and being on the cutting edge. Being the guy who knew about it FIRST makes you the coolest.

But is this guy telling the truth? Did he really know about it before it was cool? Well, and here’s where it gets interesting. This guy could be the Scarlet King Snake of hipsterdom. Oh, sure. He has the superficial markings. The arm tats. The beard. The Warby Parker glasses. The weird scarf. The t-shirt with the deep v. But, on the inside, is there really a hipster there? Is he actually doing the work to be on the cutting edge? That takes real work. You have to go to art galleries, read tech magazines, maintain a blog and drink things like Kombucha and wheatgrass. It’s much easier to fake it. And why? Because being cool feeeeeeels good. It’s likely to get you laid. It’s one of the paths to power. It’s how humans get ahead. But what is being faked depends on what the culture or subculture values. Take Instagram:

In Instagram, the ultimate virtues for women are having it all. You’re beautiful WITHOUT effort. You don’t have to watch what you eat. You can eat donuts and burgers and STILL look like a supermodel. Look at these two eating their normal diet of Starbucks pastries and In-N-Out Burgers!!! Virtue Signaling is just one more way that people try and hijack the emotion of cool at your expense. Models create an image of effortless beauty where they eat whatever they want and we want to know how they do it. What is their secret? At best, it’s genetic but a lot of it is just straight up deception. Photoshop and staged photos. Are these two really eating that Starbucks pastry and In-N-Out Burger?









Of course, people get fed up with living a lie. For example, Esena O’Neill quit Instagram even though she had 500,000 followers because she was sick of all the posing. Much of this comes down to technology. In the early days of mass media, we never went very far beyond the curtain. By now, enough of us know that the image of the great and powerful OZ is an illusion. People have less and less interest in buying into it and people like Esena O’Neill have less and less interest in maintaining it.

Virtue signaling is vital to understanding how Fundamentalism works. Young people are attracted to people who most strongly signal commitment to the group’s values. All too often this means that hardliners and people who are super intense can seem to young people like the people who most live the belief system. This means being the MOST visibly committed to the culture. In Islam, that means growing a beard and developing a prayer bump. Yep! See that mark on the guy’s forehead. He prayed so HARD that he got a permanent welt on his forehead. It’s sometimes called a zabibah (Arabic for reason) and some people consider it the ultimate mark of a Muslim.

Of course, people fake the zabibah too. And that’s the problem. We see the zabibah. We don’t see what’s in the guy’s heart. Does he really practice the five pillars of Islam? Or is he just a poser? Is he just putting on airs? To know that requires going behind the curtain.

Virtue signaling happens in science all the time. Fancy jargon, publishing papers, acting very serious and dignified…these are the zabibah of science. People listen to that tone of voice and see these social proofs and if you don’t know better then you think that person is really living the virtues of science. You can even get a PhD that’s bad science and most people will never look past those three letters to the underlying work. And, in that sense, science is no different from hipsters, Instagram models, Islam or gangsta culture. There are posers everywhere.




Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.


  1. Kristinn Gislason Reply

    Could you please put up download links for your podcasts? Personally, I can only listen to podcasts on my mobile phone and I can’t afford to use streaming services outside my home.
    I’d love to continue tuning in to Mixed Mental Arts but it’s gotten pretty difficult since I don’t have constant access to wifi.


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