Friday, September 10, 2010

Coordinating mediocrity

Seth Roberts (a psychology professor who splits his time between Berkeley and Tsinghua in Beijing) points me to an interesting paper by two Italian sociologists.

If you speak to young Italians, particularly scientists and other highly educated people, you will hear terrible stories about just how dysfunctional their academic and research systems have become. At meetings like the one I am currently attending, I often hear the comment that Italy's number one export is talented people, trained at the expense of taxpayers. "Look at all the Italians at this conference -- but they are all working in other countries!"

The paper characterizes the current situation in Italy as a collective outcome (equilibrium) with its own cynical and corrosive social norms. I can easily think of other examples! There is tremendous value to being an efficient "high trust" society (what the authors would call an H-world), and once the equilibrium has shifted in the L direction it is very hard to correct.

One very jarring thing about science and academia is that students entering the field are among the most idealistic of people, yet a significant fraction of senior researchers are among the most cynical. The proportions vary by discipline.

L-worlds: the curious preference for low quality and its norms

Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi
Department of Sociology, Oxford University

Abstract. We investigate a phenomenon which we have experienced as common when dealing with an assortment of Italian public and private institutions: people promise to exchange high quality goods and services (H), but then something goes wrong and the quality delivered is lower than promised (L). While this is perceived as ‘cheating’ by outsiders, insiders seem not only to adapt but to rely on this outcome. They do not resent low quality exchanges, in fact they seem to resent high quality ones, and are inclined to ostracise and avoid dealing with agents who deliver high quality. This equilibrium violates the standard preference ranking associated to the prisoner’s dilemma and similar games, whereby self-interested rational agents prefer to dish out low quality in exchange for high quality. While equally ‘lazy’, agents in our L-worlds are nonetheless oddly ‘pro-social’: to the advantage of maximizing their raw self-interest, they prefer to receive low quality provided that they too can in exchange deliver low quality without embarrassment. They develop a set of oblique social norms to sustain their preferred equilibrium when threatened by intrusions of high quality. We argue that cooperation is not always for the better: high quality collective outcomes are not only endangered by self-interested individual defectors, but by ‘cartels’ of mutually satisfied mediocrities.

Here is a nice example:

... When Federico Varese (1996) revealed that Stefano Zamagni, a well-established Italian economist, had plagiarised verbatim several pages from Robert Nozick, Varese was criticised by several Italian colleagues who together evoked nine norms or reasons that he would have violated by blowing the whistle. None of these include a justification of plagiarism per se. Varese discusses them in an unpublished article (“Economia d’idee II”). They are worth listing, their range is staggering:

1. There is nothing original, everyone plagiarises, so why bother? [journalist]

2. Whistle blowers are always worse than their targets [sociologist]

3. What is the point of targeting Zamagni? They will never punish him anyway.

4. What is the point of blowing the whistle as you will pay the consequences

5. He is a good “barone”, much better than many others, so why target him?

6. Zamagni is a member of the left and you should not weaken the left during election times [economist; various friends]

7. Zamagni shows good intellectual tastes as he plagiarises very good authors, so he does not deserve to be attacked [philosopher]

8. Given that many are guilty of plagiarism, targeting one in particular shows that the whistle blower is driven by base motives.

9. In addition, an economist suggested an explanation rather than a justification saying that the real author of the plagiarism was probably a student of Zamagni who wrote the paper for him. This would, funnily enough, imply that Zamagni was innocent of the plagiarism, but still that he signed a paper he did not write, written by someone who also did not write it!

From the conclusions:

... Whatever its origins, the cost of the L-propensity is proving over time more detrimental than helpful – flexibility shifts to laxness, tolerance to sloppiness, and confusion to breaches of trust – and standards in Italian education, politics, media and cultural creativity in general, although blessed by the occasional geniuses, have never risen and have quite possibly declined further. One does not need to be an incurable perfectionist to appreciate how sadly this is the case.

An implication of this paper is that the threat to good collective outcomes is not just free-riding. There are subtler ones. The L-world we described is not an extra-normative one populated by isolate individual predators free to roam around, but one governed by its own ‘perverse’ social norms. The social sciences have focused on cooperation and on the social norms that sustain it while narrowly conceiving of anti-cooperators as individualistic predators, acting free of normative constraints. Social norms, in the dominant interpretation, would exist as an antidote to our natural antisocial proclivities. The interest of our case is to suggest that this distinction does not stand up, and that those whom we think of as free-riders too operate within a normative structure – a special “cement of society” that glues L-doers together to the detriment of the common good.

See also footnote 3:

Recent experimental research carried out by Herrmann, Thöni & Gächter (2007) has come up with unexpected evidence which may be germane to our case. They ran the so called public-good game with university students in 15 cities in the developed and developing world, from the US to China, from the UK to Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. ... In other words, there were some L-doers who punish H-doers. ... Going in descending order of size of punishment, punishment of more generous contributors was found in Muscat, Athens, Riyadh, Samara, Minsk, Istanbul, Seoul and Dnipropetrovs'k. Although not entirely absent, this type of punishment proved negligible in Boston, Nottingham, St. Gallen, Zurich, Copenhagen, Bonn, and Chengdu.

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