ZahaviHandicapPrinciple offers an explanation of the peacock's tail in evolutionary theory. Because longer tails are unweildy, having one is a handicap to the peacock which has it. For this reason, only very fit peacocks can afford the cost of the longest.

I'm starting to realize that the handicap principle is the enemy of the rational attempt to avoid effort I call RadicalLaziness. I'm starting to see the handicap principle at work wherever I find a commitment to unnecessary effort.

For example :

  • as an academic I encounter an over-emphasis on the need to make long lists of citations. Many readers judge academic papers by their citation list. Are most of these citations used? No, the readers who weigh up citations usually know them already. Instead the academic is signalling her fitness through parading an unfeasably large bibliography. (AcademiaVsNewMedia/GranularityOfScholarlyWriting)
  • as a web engineer I discover a move towards implementing systems in Java. Because Java is a necessary tool to build good, robust web sites? No, but because use of Java and the extra effort it requires is a filter which removes all but the cleverest and most hardworking programmers.
  • as a web UsabilityTsar I see large, rich, probably smart, companies create web-pages that are lousy with BadWebDesign, and clunky to use. Why? Because these companies don't need every customer. By building sites so goddam unusable they lose 70% of their customers on the way through, they signal to the world their super-fitness, their capacity to thrive in the face their own stupidity.
  • Those nearest the customer in the SupplyChain take a huge slice of the EconomicRent, and spend it on competitive signalling.

** Maybe compare AdSense ClickFraud (

"because use of Java and the extra effort it requires is a filter which removes all but the cleverest and most hardworking programmers."

Perhaps, although I think this is an argument used more by the programmers themselves than the companies that employ them, who are instead taken in by "professional" industry opinions about the suitability of languages. A lot of Java advocates claim that other languages don't enforce rigid design processes et al, which the companies pick up on without necessarily worrying about the actual quality of work, just that which is perceived at the end of the day.

I'm also not sure that companies intentionally make their sites horrible to use. I think this comes down more to a misunderstanding of the platform, in a world where style is queen. Companies used to tailoring all their content - adverts, press releases, etc - towards making a good impression (as is encouraged by a capitalist lilt?), rather than considering its practicality values. The people in charge of such projects have a tendency to think of it as a promotional product that shows off the company, rather than as a useable service. "Never attribute to malice what one can attribute to stupidity." Maybe this is the same thing, just along a different track (i.e. presentation as a form of handicap).

Not arguing per se, just putting a different spin on it... :)


Interesting article by JoelSpolsky points out the virtues of putting good C++ programmers writing Visual Basic. (The The) winning situation for those companies doomed to write Java because of the handicap principle is to use a mixed language model. A modicum of JavaLanguage to establish macho systems programming credentials (and even filter out lousy programmers) and do the real work in a scripting language.

Could GroovyLanguage be the scripting language Java shops are dying for?

: Instead the academic is signalling her fitness through parading an unfeasably large bibliography

Odd. That's never been my view of why citations are deemed so important.

Citations are important in academia because your worth in the community is judged by how important your work is, how often it's cited, etc. In many ways academia is an instance of TheAttentionEconomy.

A long citation list isn't proving your fitness, its improving others'. Not citing properly is a sin because (in the context of the academic community) it's theft. Citation is the GoogleJuice of the academic community.


Of course! This page should be connected to LinkingVsCiting


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