There's really only one fundamental question in social science, and it's the root of all the others: Why does life suck?
I'm not talking about the effects of disasters, like tidal waves and new strains of flu, that are beyond human control. Nor about those human-caused miseries that are bad for some but good for others: When I enjoy cheap clothes because you're underpaid, my conduct's not hard to explain.
But there are many forms of unhappiness that we can't blame on nature or other people's desires. It's self-inflicted misery: Wars that don't end, though no one wants them to continue; schools that don't work, though their teachers, parents and students wish they did; streets ruled by gangs everyone would like to disappear. This is what the social sciences were born to explain: why people collectively do things that no individual wants. We need to know why people conspire to ensure life sucks, when it didn't have to.
In this paper, Diego Gambetta, a sociologist, and Gloria Origgi, a philosopher, have touched on the big theme (you can download the pdf at the link).
They applied game theory to a common form of suckitude: That department (or company, or industry, or region) where everyone promises competent, conscientious, reliable work that will be done on time—and then delivers dodgy, careless, uneven results, which are, of course, late. You probably have your own word or phrase for this "cocktail of confusion, sloppiness and broken promises," as Gambetta and Origgi put it. They call it, simply, Italy.
Both are Italians (who else could get away with it?) who work in other countries, and who have obviously given a big kiss goodbye to any thought of getting a job in their homeland (most of their examples of incompetent mediocrity are drawn from Italian academia). Why, they wondered, do their dealings with their Italian colleagues almost always disappoint?
The essential trouble, they say, is not that people don't live up to their own standards. It's that they don't want to—and, in fact, get surprised and angry when anyone does better than so-so. That's a culture in which all parties promise high-quality results while knowing they'll both receive and deliver the old eh, whatever. One of the authors' American friends described a real-world case, they write: "Italian builders never deliver when they promise, but the good thing is they do not expect you to pay them when you promise either."
According to the models of exchange used in economics, this culture shouldn't endure. Whatever people are trading (ideas, services, or goods), game theorists posit that each one wants to receive high-quality work from others. The big theoretical debate, instead, turns on what each person gives in exchange. (A strictly rational economic mind would try to give the least to get the most, though experiments have shown that real people prefer fairness over a maximum payoff for themselves.)
But a game-theoretical model can describe a game where all players prefer "L," the "low" (or lousy, lazy, lackadaisical) payoff, Gambetta and Origgi write: "If you give me L but in return you tolerate my L we collude on L-ness, we become friends in L-ness, just like friends we tolerate each other’s weaknesses." On the other hand, if you unexpectedly do a great job, "that leaves you free to disclose my L-ness and complain about it." By doing what you said you would do, you've proved yourself untrustworthy....MORE
Thursday, March 4, 2010
"Game Theory Explains the Many Habits of Highly Ineffective People"
From Big Think: