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New Insights into the Habits of Highly Ineffective People

Why do people so often fail to live up to their own standards?

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 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. The paper’s unusual in describing social pressure that is, oddly, anti-social. If people this kind of system could be frank, they might encourage graduates to go out there and be a part of something smaller than themselves: Set your sights low, kid, and you’d be surprised how little you can accomplish.

This kind of “cartel of mediocrities” will arise, the authors say, when rewards for high-quality work are low (we all get paid the same, why kill yourself?) and the consequences of lousy work aren’t very harsh (no one gets fired, why kill yourself?).

Why not admit all this and just stop pretending to have high standards? That way is blocked if the confederacy of dunces works in an industry where competitors really do pursue excellence. For instance, “I am a lazy go-along, get-along hack” is not going to work as a campaign slogan for the New York state legislature, because voters want politicians to be responsible and hard-working, and some are. So all the go-along, get-along hacks have to campaign as dedicated public servants.

Or, to use one of Gambetta and Origgi’s examples, Italian olive-oil producers get good prices and state subsidies—and avoid trouble with regulators—by adhering to industry standards for making extra-virgin olive oil. When some adulterated their product with sunflower oil, they certainly couldn’t say so. (One of the culprits justified the fraud by saying fake “extra virgin” oil was a nice break for poor people—it let them have the fancy label at a price they could afford. As the authors point out, the culture of mutually assured lousiness comes with a rich tradition of excuses.)

Of course, Gambetta and Origgi note, not all high standards are worth adhering to. It’s no badge of honor to be the best damn contract killer money can buy, for instance. Jews fared better in Italy in the 1930’s than they did in Germany, the authors note, precisely because Italians were far more prone to pay lip service to their racial laws.

In fact, they believe the ultimate cause of mediocrity cartels might be oppression: When you’re working for an occupier, colonizer or slave-owner, you have every reason to do little even as you’re required to proclaim that you’re doing a lot. Italy’s history, they write, suggests that this culture was “an adaptive response to oppressive norms imposed by the many colonizers of the country […].”

So a conspiracy of shoddiness can begin as what the historian James C. Scott has called a “weapon of the weak.” Scott quotes an Ethiopian proverb: “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts.” Unfortunately, it seems people have a hard time noticing when the great lord is long gone.


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