Using a simple game, researchers examined the logic of modesty when people obscure good deeds and positive traits, patterns that seem to contradict the evolution of pro-social behavior among human beings. The findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on May 28.

The study used the signal-burying game, a game theory model designed by a group of scientists: Postdoctoral researcher Christian Hilbe from the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), and two Harvard University researchers, Moshe Hoffman and Martin Nowak.

Humility is a trait which finds admiration from nearly all groups of society, an example being anonymous acts of kindness. For instance, you may have come across public appreciation for a celebrity who secretly made charitable donations. A variation of this phenomenon can also be observed in a creative setting. A film director may add an impressive detail to a scene but purposefully avoid drawing much attention to it. 

The scientists found that the obscuring of such information, which can be thought of as "burying a signal," may actually be a form of signaling too.

"Our explanation is based on the intuition that making a positive signal harder to spot can serve as a signal itself," the authors wrote. "Burying a signal may indicate a lack of interest in those who have been impressed by the signal but now are liable to notice it." 

Another interpretation involves the sender of the signal being confident that those who matter to them will find out anyway. An acquired taste, for example, can limit the circle of people who may recognize and appreciate an obscure song or a designer bag without an obvious logo.

The game consisted of three types of senders (high, medium, and low), and different types of receivers (selective and unselective). The sender and the receiver are unaware of each other's type. The senders have the option of paying a cost to send a signal and convey their type. The signal may be sent clearly or be buried.

If buried, it has lower chances of being noticed by a receiver, risking never being seen at all. After the sender has made their signaling decision, the receivers can choose whether or not to engage in an economic interaction with the sender. The game has an element of risk, and therefore, senders and receivers must develop strategies to maximize their payoff.

"We wanted to understand what strategies would evolve naturally and be stable," Hilbe said. "In particular, is it possible to have a situation where high-level senders always choose to bury their signals, mid-level senders always send a clear signal, and low-level senders send no signal at all?"

This was said to parallel real-life scenarios, especially since the model allowed senders to target specific receivers at the risk of losing others. A sender may not want to brag about their accomplishments as it may cause an important person to feel distaste and aversion, even if it may impress the weakly selective receivers.

But when the sender does not draw attention, only a few people may unveil the obscured positive trait or deed. For reputational gain, the sender may be satisfied with this as these are the people that matter to them, despite the loss of the unselective receivers.