Knowing how to send and interpret signals is an essential part of both diplomacy and war. Political scientists have recognized that costly signals – gestures and actions that involve significant cost or risk – are central to politics and diplomacy since modeling doyen James Fearon built his Ph.D. thesis around the concept in the 1990s. Because these signaling systems are pervasive in nature (many of these strategies arise independently and repeatedly to solve common problems suggesting evolutionary pressure to select strategies offering the most success at the least cost), their underlying strategic logic has important implications to foreign policy challenges we face today. By capitalizing on solutions derived by evolution over 3.5 billion years of life on Earth, we may identify ideas that otherwise might not have been explored in a policy context potentially offering quick, novel, and effective options to increase strategic and combat effectiveness. Here we present 8 lessons from evolution for political science.

Lesson 1. Honest signals will be costly

The power of costly signaling in the animal world is captured in the famous example of the peacock’s tail. A series of studies have demonstrated that females select males with the longest and most elaborate tails. The benefits of such a selection criterion are clear: males that are able to allocate sufficient resources to grow this long tail, make it colorful, and keep it clean and healthy looking, survive despite their handicap. Males that can do this have energy to burn; they radiate their quality. The tail is thus an honest advertisement of the skills of acquiring food, avoiding predators, and controlling parasites and pathogens. Females choosing these showy males will ensure high quality genes being transmitted to their offspring.

Indeed, from this and many other studies of signaling and communication in a diversity of mammals, birds, fishes, and insects, we can conclude that a common feature of animal communication is that costly signaling is valued by receivers, not just the sender, and in a wide range of settings. This biological rule has important implications for several aspects of foreign policy including making positive gestures during negotiations.

An effective negotiator must communicate honesty to the receiver, thereby inducing trust. Negotiations proceed with repeated positive feedback: the receiver needs to honestly signal trust back to the negotiator. Complicating this interaction is the cross-cultural nature of diplomacy that may result in the misinterpretation of honest signals. Positive gestures are one way of building trust. To be effective in the long term, positive gestures must be costly, yet many positive gestures in foreign policy are ritualized into protocol whereby there are formal and invariant rules by which states, and their emissaries, interact. If they are expected as routine, they are unlikely to be valued—seen as a result of the situation rather than any cooperative disposition of the actor.#

Lesson 2: Ritualized signals may have little value, but may be used strategically

In animal systems, ritualized signals contain little information and do not vary much from individual to individual; consider the first, stereotypical behaviors in a courtship sequence. To avoid confusion, such displays are often ritualized. This lack of variation means that there is less of an opportunity for a receiver to associate a display with its underlying cost. And, while ritualized gestures might be commonplace ways of building trust – consider shaking hands, smiling, engaging in small talk – these displays may not be as effective as a genuinely costly display. This is not to entirely discount the importance of these displays, because effective cooperation between individuals is costly in that it takes time to develop and requires individuals to evaluate each other’s reputations that are built over time. However, for now, let’s consider isolated responses.

Systematically reducing the value of a signal to a receiver may be used strategically. The Egyptians capitalized on what became to Israelis a ritualized signal—maneuvers on the Israeli border in the months preceding the Yom Kippur War. Before attacking Israel, Egypt ran 40 military exercises on Israel’s borders#. This led Israel to discount the threat of a troop buildup on their border and enhanced its vulnerability.

However, there are also costs to ritualization. The recently scrapped Homeland Security Threat Level remained unchanged for years before being eliminated. What message did this invariant ritualized message send to travelers—or to prospective terrorists? Indeed, one lesson from nature is that one must consider the nature of the recipient in order to properly design a signal. And, in some cases, such ritualized signals may become meaningless and counterproductive.

Read more at Social Evolution Forum

Published On: April 5, 2012

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