People who do A say they do it because B, and that may be true, but they also do it because X, Y, Z, etc. Behaviors have multiple purposes and some of them are Signaling.


  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort
  • Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
  • Marriage isn’t about Romance
  • Talk isn’t about Info
  • Laughter isn’t about Jokes
  • Charity isn’t about Helping
  • Church isn’t about God
  • Art isn’t about Insight
  • Medicine isn’t about Health
  • Consulting isn’t about Advice
  • School isn’t about Learning
  • Research isn’t about Progress
  • Politics isn’t about Policy

The above summarizes much of my contrarian world view. (What else should go on this list?) When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.

[formatting mine]

(Hanson n.d.)

  • Education isn’t (only) about learning things

    • Signaling to future employers
    • Building a network of social connections (clubs, greek life, classmates, dorm life)
  • We can do things for more than one reason

  • People tend to say they’re doing X because of Y. However, in truth, the reasons are more complex. While they may do X because Y, that often isn’t the only reason and may not even by the primary reason. People may do X not because of Y, but rather because it’s not polite, practical, politically-savvy (Realpolitik), etc to say the real reason. Or because X is only effective if the true reason isn’t said out loud (Taboo games) In fact, people might not know the real reason (The card says moops).

    • That said, it’s also not correct, in my strong opinion, to say “People who do X say it’s about Y when it’s really about Z, so their actual only reason for doing it is Z”. No. Yes, and. In addition to. Someone can put on makeup for both (1) Signaling and (2) enjoyment. The reduction to biological terms (i.e. reproduction, safety, alliances, resources, etc) seems Lowercase-a accurate without being capital-T True.
  • Employers forcing return-to-office isn’t only about bringing people into the office but also about firing (a) those who don’t return without having to explicitly do more lay-offs

Related: Proximate cause and Ultimate cause.


Hanson, Robin. n.d. “Politics Isn’t About Policy.” Accessed January 9, 2023.