Signalling (1970S)

The provision of information for decision-making, especially regarding price.

Price changes signal producers that supply and demand are no longer in equilibrium.

Also see: adverse selection

Source:
A M Spence, Market Signalling: Information Transfer in Hiring and Related Processes (Cambridge, Mass., 1973)

Introductory questions

Signalling started with the idea of asymmetric information (a deviation from perfect information), which relates to the fact that, in some economic transactions, inequalities exist in the normal market for the exchange of goods and services. In his seminal 1973 article, Michael Spence proposed that two parties could get around the problem of asymmetric information by having one party send a signal that would reveal some piece of relevant information to the other party.[1] That party would then interpret the signal and adjust his or her purchasing behaviour accordingly—usually by offering a higher price than if she had not received the signal. There are, of course, many problems that these parties would immediately run into.

  • How much time, energy, or money should the sender (agent) spend on sending the signal?
  • How can the receiver (the principal, who is usually the buyer in the transaction) trust the signal to be an honest declaration of information?
  • Assuming there is a signalling equilibrium under which the sender signals honestly and the receiver trusts that information, under what circumstances will that equilibrium break down?

Job-market signalling

In the job market, potential employees seek to sell their services to employers for some wage, or price. Generally, employers are willing to pay higher wages to employ better workers. While the individual may know his or her own level of ability, the hiring firm is not (usually) able to observe such an intangible trait—thus there is an asymmetry of information between the two parties. Education credentials can be used as a signal to the firm, indicating a certain level of ability that the individual may possess; thereby narrowing the informational gap. This is beneficial to both parties as long as the signal indicates a desirable attribute—a signal such as a criminal record may not be so desirable.

Spence 1973 “Job Market Signaling” paper

Assumptions and groundwork

Michael Spence considers hiring as a type of investment under uncertainty[1] analogous to buying a lottery ticket and refers to the attributes of an applicant which are observable to the employer as indices. Of these, attributes which the applicant can manipulate are termed signals.[clarification needed] Applicant age is thus an index but is not a signal since it does not change at the discretion of the applicant. The employer is supposed to have conditional probability assessments of productive capacity, based on previous experience of the market, for each combination of indices and signals.[clarification needed] The employer updates those assessments upon observing each employee’s characteristics. The paper is concerned with a risk-neutral employer. The offered wage is the expected marginal product. Signals may be acquired by sustaining signalling costs (monetary and not). If everyone invests in the signal in the exactly the same way, then the signal can’t be used as discriminatory, therefore a critical assumption is made: the costs of signalling are negatively correlated with productivity. This situation as described is a feedback loop: the employer updates his beliefs upon new market information and updates the wage schedule, applicants react by signalling, and recruitment takes place. Michael Spence studies the signalling equilibrium that may result from such a situation. He began his 1973 model with a hypothetical example:[1] suppose that there are two types of employees—good and bad—and that employers are willing to pay a higher wage to the good type than the bad type. Spence assumes that for employers, there’s no real way to tell in advance which employees will be of the good or bad type. Bad employees aren’t upset about this, because they get a free ride from the hard work of the good employees. But good employees know that they deserve to be paid more for their higher productivity, so they desire to invest in the signal—in this case, some amount of education. But he does make one key assumption: good-type employees pay less for one unit of education than bad-type employees. The cost he refers to is not necessarily the cost of tuition and living expenses, sometimes called out of pocket expenses, as one could make the argument that higher ability persons tend to enroll in “better” (i.e. more expensive) institutions. Rather, the cost Spence is referring to is the opportunity cost. This is a combination of ‘costs’, monetary and otherwise, including psychological, time, effort and so on. Of key importance to the value of the signal is the differing cost structure between “good” and “bad” workers. The cost of obtaining identical credentials is strictly lower for the “good” employee than it is for the “bad” employee. The differing cost structure need not preclude “bad” workers from obtaining the credential. All that is necessary for the signal to have value (informational or otherwise) is that the group with the signal is positively correlated with the previously unobservable group of “good” workers. In general, the degree to which a signal is thought to be correlated to unknown or unobservable attributes is directly related to its value.

The result

Spence discovered that even if education did not contribute anything to an employee’s productivity, it could still have value to both the employer and employee. If the appropriate cost/benefit structure exists (or is created), “good” employees will buy more education in order to signal their higher productivity.

The increase in wages associated with obtaining a higher credential is sometimes referred to as the “sheepskin effect”,[4] since “sheepskin” informally denotes a diploma. It is important to note that this is not the same as the returns from an additional year of education. The “sheepskin” effect is actually the wage increase above what would normally be attributed to the extra year of education. This can be observed empirically in the wage differences between ‘drop-outs’ vs. ‘completers’ with an equal number of years of education. It is also important that one does not equate the fact that higher wages are paid to more educated individuals entirely to signalling or the ‘sheepskin’ effects. In reality, education serves many different purposes for individuals and society as a whole. Only when all of these aspects, as well as all the many factors affecting wages, are controlled for, does the effect of the “sheepskin” approach its true value. Empirical studies of signalling indicate it as a statistically significant determinant of wages, however, it is one of a host of other attributes—age, sex, and geography are examples of other important factors.

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