Explaining costly religious practices: credibility enhancing displays and signaling theories

Carl Brusse, Toby Handfield, Kevin J.S. Zollman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This paper examines and contrasts two closely related evolutionary explanations in human behaviour: signalling theory, and the theory of Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs). Both have been proposed to explain costly, dangerous, or otherwise ‘extravagant’ social behaviours, especially in the context of religious belief and practice, and each have spawned significant lines of empirical research. However, the relationship between these two theoretical frameworks is unclear, and research which engages both of them (especially in systematic comparison) is largely absent. In this paper we seek to address this gap at the theoretical level, examining the core differences between the two approaches and prospects and conditions for future empirical testing. We clarify the dynamical and mechanistic bases of signalling and CREDs as explanatory models and contrast the previous uses to which they have been put in the human sciences. Because of idiosyncrasies regarding those uses (especially with signalling), several commonly supposed differences and comparative advantages are actually misleading and not in fact generalisable. We also show that signalling and CREDs theories as explanatory models are not interchangeable (or reducible to one another), because of deep structural differences. As we illustrate, the proposed causal networks of each theory are distinct, with important differences in the endogeneity of various phenomena within each model and their explanatory targets. As a result, they can be seen as complementary rather than in competition. We conclude by surveying the current state of the literature and identifying the differential predictions which could underpin more comprehensive empirical comparison in future research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number249
Number of pages32
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • CREDs
  • Cultural evolution
  • Evolution of religion
  • Evolutionary explanation
  • Signaling

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