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The Complexities of Signaling

August 28, 2009

Adam Elkus from Rethinking Security tweets about a recent critique of the current US strategy of strategic communication in the Muslim world. The critique was penned by non other than Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen’s contention is that efforts by the US to counter propaganda from Islamic militants is doomed to fail unless more attention is paid to the outcomes of US policies on the ground:

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”

Mullen’s critique is a great opportunity to discuss the importance and difficulties of signaling.

The quote above reflects general problems with signaling–the practice of conveying information about oneself to another party that in turn either reinforces or alters the image that party has of the sender. Signaling is not simply a topic for security studies, but has wide-ranging applications in economics, business, marketing, and social relations in general.

Mullen is correct that words alone will not matter much–they basically amount to cheap talk since there is little to no cost associated with uttering them. The problem is exacerbated by an actor making declarations of one kind while taking actions that can be seen as inconsistent with those declarations. Since talk is cheap, audiences will look to the actions of actors to see what they reveal about their true intentions, character, and/or interests. However, matching words to deeds in this way is difficult for any number of reasons. Keren Yarhi and I are actually in the process of writing an article on the difficulty and challenges of choosing an optimal signaling strategy. Here are two that come to mind after reading the Admiral’s comments:

  1. Multiple Audiences: signaling is hard enough, but the degree of difficulty is compounded when you consider that there are always multiple audiences receiving the signals you send. Sometimes these audiences have different expectations of your performance which can complicate how you choose to act. There are strategies for dealing with this situation (e.g. using back-channels or multivocal signals), but these strategies are far from optimal.
  2. Audience Perception: even if the right conditions exist for actors to select their preferred signaling strategy they still may not be able to effectively communicate their desired message. Why? Because whatever signals they send still need to be interpreted by the audience. Contra what Admiral Mullen asserts in his critique, actions do not always speak for themselves. In fact, they rarely ever do.

Consistency in messaging is crucial in any campaign, particularly when you are working against history as well as competitive interlocutors which may have the ear of your audience. However, it is easier said then done and even when it can be achieved it may not be enough to truly convince your audience that what you say is true.

Updated: Stephen Walt weighs in with his favorable reaction to Admiral Mullen’s piece. Walt acknowledges the problems of ‘cheap talk’, but largely assumes (or implies) that actions will speak for themselves.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.