If you’ve ever played a team sport, you’ve experienced a game that was a mismatch on paper. Now usually that game goes according to form. The better team scores early and often, and the inferior team doesn’t sniff a win. But sometimes the game gets tight. Sometimes the better team makes a few unforced errors, and the inferior team capitalizes. Sometimes there’s a lucky bounce of the ball for the inferior team. And then another. And another.
There’s a moment in every game of this unexpected type — the upset in the making — when the individual players on the better team (call them the status quo team) begin to doubt. They feel the game slipping away, even though they know that they’re the better team. What happens to many players in that moment of doubt is, to use the game theoretic phrase, they decide to defect. It doesn’t mean that they quit. It doesn’t mean that they give up. In fact, without exception, they all believe that their team will still prevail. But they start to think about what a loss, however improbable, would mean for their personal, individual goals. They never even entertained those thoughts at the beginning of the game. It was all about the team, and a team victory would naturally go hand in hand with personal development and personal goals. But now … now that the unthinkable is suddenly thinkable … they start acting directly in favor of their own self-interest, not the team’s communal interest. They start signaling their virtue.
Virtue signaling is a behavior that visibly demonstrates the individual qualities of the player to some external audience, whether or not it improves the chances of the team to win. It’s not overtly detrimental to the team. In fact, for all outward appearances it’s rather supportive of the team. But it makes all the difference in the world if an offensive lineman is more concerned with making HIS block than protecting the quarterback no matter what. It makes all the difference in the world if a shooting guard is more concerned with meeting HIS scoring average than playing team defense. It makes all the difference in the world if a Democratic Party functionary is more concerned with tweeting HIS outrage at the latest nonsense that Trump is spouting than in volunteering for a get-out-the-vote effort in Greensboro, North Carolina.