Basic signaling can be described or explained as follows:
- A signal is information sent from one place and received at another.
- A signal can be big or small.
- A signal can be true or false.*
These are the most basic features of all signals. More complex signals contain these three basic features and also exhibit other features, such as:
- having complexity or context
- being conscious or not
- being consciously designed to have an effect
From the three features of basic signaling, we can say a lot about human signaling.
The first feature of basic signaling simply defines what a signal is. I can signal to myself or I can signal to you. A simple example is I check my hair in the mirror (signal to self) and then present myself to you (signal to you). Insofar as my hair signal to you has a conscious element of how my hair looks or doesn’t look (sloppy, messy), the hair signal I sent to myself via the mirror is now being sent to you via my imagination.
This hair signal can also illustrate the second feature of basic signaling—how big or small the signal is. My hair signal may be important to me while I am looking in the mirror (big signal) or not very important (small signal). In like manner, my hair signal may be big or small in your mind.
This hair signal can also illustrate the third feature of basic signaling—its truth or falsity. If I have dyed my hair, in some sense I am sending a false signal. If I have not dyed my hair but you think I have, then you are receiving a false signal.
One could also say that dyed hair is not a truly “false” signal because it is common for people to dye their hair. Similar arguments can be made for combing or cutting hair or anything we do with our hair. The truth or falsity of many human signals is open to interpretation in this manner.
Normally, we use the three basic features of complex signals described in the second bullet list above to decide which interpretation to use. Changing the context and complexity upon which our interpretation is based will tend to change our interpretation of the signal.
Notice how many signals achieve their effects primarily by being big. Big signs, bright lights, loud music, heavy make-up, loud sexual signals, perfume, odor, big muscles, fake boobs, expensive cars, big houses and yachts, etc. all work in part by being big signals. Bigness or smallness is point two in the list above.
Bigness alone can explain why people lie, slant, or falsely accuse. As long as a signal is big, some people will be attracted to it and come under its spell. If someone accuses you falsely of something and spreads their accusation around, you may be faced with a big problem. If the lie is big enough and artful enough, you now are forced to defend yourself. If you do not even know what is being said about you, you can’t even do that.
Another version of the effectiveness of a big false accusation is one made to your face. As soon as it is uttered, the scene and context will shift dramatically. You are normally required to immediately defend yourself, derailing whatever rational exchange of ideas preceded the accusation.
We can see how this works in interpersonal communication and we can also see how it works on a larger scale. When nations go to war, they invariably lie about each other. Politicians lie, cultures lie, groups lie, religions lie, sports fans lie, and so on.
Lies or false accusation work because they send big signals that require a defense and, since they are lies, can be hard to defend against.
To me, this is a depressing side of human communication. Lies and false accusations very often win against the truth.
Simply stated, false accusations are aggressive lies, but we also know them in milder form as spin, slanting the facts, one-sidedness, tailoring the message, and so on.
Note: I got the idea of the importance of false accusations from a book I am reading on alcoholism: Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism.
The author of this book, James Graham, makes the claim repeatedly that alcoholics very often engage in false accusations. In discussing this book with my partner, we came to conclude that Graham is right about this—false accusations do seem to be common among the alcoholics we both know.
Since I like to break things down into basic principles, my partner and I came up with the principles outlined above.
A false accusation sends a big signal into a social group while at the same time protecting the alcoholic from criticism. It allows them to say, “You see it is not me or my drinking that is the problem here, she is the one who is crazy!” Or, “Can you believe what he did to me?” Of course, he didn’t do anything but to a drunk, the accusation feels good and often works with others because it is big.
On a larger scale, false accusations in public today often take form as PC dictates. That’s “racist,” “sexist,” “micro-aggressive,” “privileged,” “homophobic,” etc. Just knowing that we might be accused of one of these attitudes has been enough to keep most people from saying anything that could even be tangentially interpreted in that way.
Note two: FIML practice entirely removes false accusations and any basis for them between partners. No FIML partner should ever say, “You did too mean that!” Or “I know why you did that!”
Partners who have established a habit of frequently checking their interpretations of each other should experience very few occasions to feel that their interpretation of something their partner signaled is better than their partner’s interpretation.
*A false signal that is not conscious might be a non-poisonous snake or insect that has evolved to look like a poisonous one.
First posted 01/10/16, slightly revised 09/28/17