Humans and other animals spend a lot of time engaging in signaling behaviors: dressing or acting in certain ways in order to send signals to others. Some signals — a peacock’s tail or a Ferrari — are expensive precisely to show that the signaling organism can afford the cost of sending the signal. Signaling can explain aspects of human behavior where it’s not initially obvious that it applies. For example, it has been argued that social drinking serves as a signal of trustworthiness because alcohol permits individuals to give up some control over their actions in a verifiable way.
Lately I’ve been puzzling over my field’s love affair with in-person meetings, including grant proposal review panels, program committee meetings, conferences, PI meetings, site visits, and more. To be sure, face time is useful, but is it really necessary for high-caliber academics to be platinum-level frequent flyers? Does this serve our goals of performing high-impact research and teaching students? (I’m not platinum-level but I know a lot of people who are, and I’m usually some sort of “medallion” level on Delta.) The cost in terms of time and money is substantial, especially for those of us with families.
Historically, academics have communicated primarily through letters and manuscripts, supplemented by occasional travel. Why, then, do we need to travel so much when our telecommunications technology is so good? Lately I’ve been wondering if part of the explanation is that travel, because it is expensive, is a signaling behavior. “Look,” we are saying, “I have enough grant money to attend eight meetings a year, and moreover I have such an army of students working for me that the loss of personal productivity this travel entails is no big deal.”
Are academics status conscious? We are. Inside a community it is perfectly well-known whose work is deep and significant, whose is shallow, who leads the trends and who follows, and even who struck it rich with a startup and who’s in trouble for sleeping with a student. We love to talk about this stuff, and I’d also guess that we’re not above using excessive travel as a status signal.