Online Certifications are an example of costly signaling.
Costly signaling theory tells us that “the meaning and significance attached to a something is in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated.” (Sutherland, p. 178)
I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering the motivations behind all these certifications. Why are so many companies releasing them? And why is everybody paying for them?
In thinking about this, I’ve found no better analogy than the behavior of bullfrogs during mating season.
Let’s hear from Rory Sutherland:
Bullfrogs advertise their size and health by croaking, the deepness of the croak indicating size and its duration indicating fitness. Females which randomly developed a preference for deeper-throated, more persistently croaking frogs would on balance produce better-adapted offspring, since the trait was reliably correlated with quality. The two traits, deep-throatedness in males and a preference for it in females, will then grow in lockstep, since the genes for both will be increasingly found together.Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (p. 200). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.
Female bullfrogs have discovered over many years that their male counterparts signal reproductive fitness through the deepness of their croak and its duration. Therefore, females look for males who display these two traits when picking a mate. It’s simple. If you’re a female, listen for the male with the deepest and longest croak and cozy up to him. This gives you the best chance to reproduce your genes.
The problem is that these signals of fitness can often turn into an arms race. Here’s how Sutherland put it:
If you are a fit bullfrog, how long should you keep up your mating call? The only safe answer to this question is ‘for a bit longer than any other bullfrog nearby’. As a result, a quality that starts off being prized as a useful proxy for fitness becomes exaggerated to an absurd degree, a process sometimes known as Fisherian runaway selection.Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (p. 200). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.
When I read about the croaks of bullfrogs, I didn’t dwell on what was going on in nature. I immediately thought about the implications of Fisherian Runaway selection in the coaching world.
Certifications as a Fisherian Runaway
Let me explain.
By spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and investing time and energy into a course and passing the tests, certified coaches signal commitment, trustworthiness, and knowledge.
This is often necessary to get a job in the sports world. In a globalized talent pool, you need to pay the table stakes and find ways to signal your unique value to potential employers.
The problem is that certifications can easily take on Fisherian Runaway properties. If one was good, two is better. Even better than two? Three.
You look on Twitter and see that coach you admire posting about his third completed certification this year and it’s only May.
Well, I guess it’s time to get your fourth.
Our natural tendency is to compete by mimicking what others are doing, but slightly better. Not only is this difficult, but it’s also draining.
If you attempt to signal your value as a coach by getting every certification under the sun, you’re like the bullfrog who tries to croak just a little bit longer than every other bullfrog nearby.
In a world where everyone’s competing by doing the same thing, the only option is to do more; or do it cheaper or faster.
But as Benjamin Franklin once said:
“If everybody is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”
I may be a bit Utopian in my thinking, but I believe there’s a better way.
I want to make this clear, I don’t think certifications are bad. If a certification will make you better, by all means, get the certification. What I am warning against is getting certifications as a means of competing and signaling instead of learning.