Praise Results

I am deeply honored by Tyler Cowen’s blog post “In praise of Robin Hanson.” My first instinct is to respond in kind, but doing so now would seem forced; better to wait until no one expects it.  Instead let me use this opportunity to make a point about signaling: the world would be better if we praised folks more for what they did than who they are.

Most eulogies, introductions, reviews, etc., whether in praise or criticism, tend to discuss what a person has done mainly as clues to what sort of person they are.  For example, music reviews talk about what a new album says about how the musician has developed, instead of how that music can brighten the lives of listeners.

Very small acts are often mentioned, if they seem telling.  And we often hear that someone was head of an organization, or had a credential, without hearing much about what they did with such influence.  We often hear they were part of some project without hearing the difference they made, and the differences we do hear about are often merely due to others knowing of their association with the project.

Because the usual focus is on inferring how smart, strong, creative, caring, charismatic, determined, etc. people are, the incentives are more to do things that suggest good things about your character.  If instead we focused on describing the differences a person has actually made to the world, we would get more folks trying harder to actually make a difference.  And they would focus more on acquiring the features that produce results, instead of features that are easy to see.

And when we evaluate the difference someone made, we should correct for the opportunities they had.  For example, if they saved lives as a doctor, we should ask if they saved more than if someone else had been allowed to be a doctor in their place.  If they rose from rags to riches, we should ask who helped them along the way.  If they headed an group that did a great thing, we should wonder whether that group would have done something similar with someone else in charge.

If we praised results instead of character, maybe we will get more of both.

Added 7p: Will Wilkinson comments here.

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  • bcg

    But the reason we care about who they are is to predict what they will do. I.e., “He saved a lot of lives,” is good, but we especially want to know he saved a lot of lives because of some internal code that will continually produce good for us. “He saved a lot of lives because he was paid money to do so, and would have killed people instead for more money,” both have what he did as “save lives” but paint a very different picture about who the man is.

    • Do we mainly care about future acts even for eulogies and retrospectives?

      • bcg

        I know it’s not rational behavior, but it’s very typical that we continue to treat the dead with the same respect as if they were alive.

        Are we honoring the person who died, or are we honoring the actions themselves that resulted from his life? I think part of the whole “honoring the dead” thing is the idea that if he were still alive and healthy, he would keep doing all the things that make us miss him.

  • Awwww, shucks. Gawrsh.

  • Fenn

    “If instead we focused on describing the differences a person has actually made to the world, we would get more folks trying harder to actually make a difference”

    So we should act against our own hard-wired natures by evaluating people along these lines in order to inspire others to act against their hard-wired natures and focus more on results than appearances?

    Hell, I’m with you for the first half, but I’m surprised the guy who slapped down “Spent” is advancing this argument.

    • Well if I were proposing that we praise someone other than we are wired to praise, I’d agree the prospects are dim. But I’m just proposing to change how we describe our praise.

  • But surely the primary function of praise is to signal the high status of the praiser by associating him with the already-high-status praisee?

    As in (if you’ll excuse the cynical parody of Tyler): “Robin Hanson is the smartest guy in the world. Amn’t I great for hiring him?”

  • Contra bcg above, there is good reason to doubt that a person’s perceived character will reliably predict what they will do.

    The findings of situationist social psychology (Zimbardo, Milgram, etc.) show that folk psychological notions of character are at least inaccurate, and possibly that there is no such thing as character at all. An excellent introduction to this subject is “Lack of Character” by John Doris.

    So, I agree with Robin that it is better to praise people for the things they do than for who they are. We can be much more sure that a person has done some commendable thing than that they have some commendable trait.

    • Dain

      Do you mean the folk psychological notions of character attributed to people in suits, labcoats, etc.? That they wouldn’t be responsible for pain and injury, etc.?

      I think for what people are trying to measure about one’s character in cases involving authority is whether that person will become easily emotionally enraged, hysterical or steal from your wallet. And it’s true, they are less likely to do that. Whether they commit violence and thievery via degrees of seperation involving underlings is another question, but not the question folk psychological assumptions of authority (“experts”) are trying to ask.

    • Bryan Caplan pushes back on that line of thought here.

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  • JGWeissman

    “For example, if they saved lives as a doctor, we should ask if they saved more than if someone else had been allowed to be a doctor in their place.”

    And then we should ask what other great things that other person accomplished instead of saving lives as a doctor.

  • Floodplain

    Well, I know teachers (and parents, in parenting books) are recommended to do this to their children/students. To praise their behaviours and works (‘Great job on the math test’ instead of ‘You’re so smart at math’ etc.)

    • Michael Johnston

      I am a teacher, and I wanted to make this comment but you beat me to it. I told a kid yesterday, “you’re the greatest.” The result of this experiment was a blank stare.

      If the goal is to encourage specific behavior, give specific feedback.

      However, in eulogies, etc. the behavior being encouraged is usually not something the audience can replicate. Praising a doctor for the methodology of his surgery and the outcomes that he produced in his patients’ elbows won’t apply to most of the audience. If we start from the assumption that there is such a thing as character, like people have been telling us all along, then this is something that can apply to the whole audience, though it may well be hard to measure.

      By praising real results in such a setting, one signals that real results are important by spending scarce eulogizing time on talking about real results.

      If the person is alive and the act is repeatable it is a different story though. The student I encouraged to do addition and subtraction his own way not only appreciated the signal that he was intelligent, but was able to successfully complete more similar problems in the future.

  • Excellent point. As an addition to this, I note that people whose WORK I criticize often take it as a criticism of them as PEOPLE. This is a mistake, and a common one, and one that I think has harmed me professionally, let alone personally. Too bad they don’t think like you do 🙁

  • A White


    Sounds like you’re advocating a real life interpretation of a commonly used baseball statistic. VORP or (Value Over Replacement Person/Player) would also make baseball teams better if GMs used it properly….

  • MPS

    Likewise one should stake his self-image on what he does, not who he is (or how he imagines himself in the future).

  • “But surely the primary function of praise is to signal the high status of the praiser by associating him with the already-high-status praisee?”

    Not sure here — people praise all sorts of folks who they have no connection to, often in very servile ways that signal their low status. Take groupies, whether of musicians, actors, movie directors, video game designers, etc. This fanboy praise signals low status.

    There’s still something to what you’re saying, though. We could test it by measuring how obscure the average praisee is, since obscurity would boost the snob value to the praiser. Again, assuming the praiser is socially connected to the praisee, else we’re back in fanboy territory.

    One way to test this is to take a random sample of praises where the praiser knew the praisee, or at least had a friendly dinner together, etc. What percent of these praises are of obscure figures?

    For example, let’s say you knew both Armen Alchian and Paul Samuelson pretty well — lots of personal anecdotes to share, etc. And you think the intellectual merit, work ethic, etc. of both is roughly the same. But you can only write an article of praise for one (so it’s not free) — who do you write about?

    The “halo of status” hypothesis predicts more praises for Samuelson since he’s better known (and has a Nobel), while the snob hypothesis predicts more for Alchian.

    May be a side project for a grad student to write up for Econ Journal Watch…

    • Not sure here — people praise all sorts of folks who they have no connection to, often in very servile ways that signal their low status.

      Another possibility that occurs to me is that they’re signalling tribal loyalties. I’m thinking in particular of sports fans. I can think of a more than a few friends, more passionate about football (soccer, if you’re in the US) than I am, who’ll sing the praises of the best player on their team but will never give more than grudging respect to their hated enemies.

  • Robert Koslover

    This may be slightly off-topic, but the late Professor Joseph Weber, a true pioneer in the physics of gravitational waves, kindly offered the following advice to me when I was a young physics student: “Do not seek honors and awards, but accept them graciously when they are thrust upon you.” That advice has served me well, I think.

  • Robert Koslover

    “…the world would be better if we praised folks more for what they did than who they are.” Sounds good to me. But how about if we go farther and define ourselves by what we do? If I may be excused for quoting from a robot in a fictional work (unpublished) of my own from 1996: “I am what I do. I do what I am. There is, and must always be, nothing else — whether for man or machine.” Do you agree?

    • What you are is a matter of choice and preference – the universe doesn’t tell you.

      • You both seem to me to be overcertain of your positions on this superphilosophical topic.

        On this topic I haven’t encountered better than Professor Koch’s (of Caltech) approach to what you are in his description of consciousness.

  • q

    Your ‘acceptance speech’ above is very nice, direct, and to the point.

    I’m not sure I agree with you about music reviews though. The ones I read at least attempt to describe the music, or attempt to describe the musical influences that a reader might know about that influenced the musicians and their music. The music reviews I read generally give me enough information to make an initial judgement as to whether I’d like to hear more or pay to hear it.

    In most cases it would be more efficient just to listen to a little of the music. In some cases (ie where the group’s music is of highly variable quality or type) it would be preferable to have someone give me a guided tour. Both of these things are far easier than they used to be due to the internet.

  • It is all about eating, and apparently Robin passed the test, :-).

  • Thomas M. Hermann

    I would rather people not be motivated by external praise, but do what they do for the sheer satisfaction of contributing something to society. Maybe not even that, maybe just the sheer satisfaction of trying to reach ones potential.

    When I was working in cube-land, there was a praise program in the organization that was intended to reward those interested in advancing on a technical track as opposed to a management track. I found myself sitting at my cube one day wondering if the project I was working on would attract the praise for the technical track. Seeking the external praise was perverting my work. This realization led me to stop participating in the program. I believe that this realization is applicable in the general sense as well.

    Seeking external praise is a perversion of effort.

  • A dude

    The last sentences in Robin’s post are key, though. That’s exactly the thing — there is way too much complexity and information to process in evaluating achievements in the context of opportunity sets (and corrected for stochastics — were they lucky vs were they good?). Humans developed a sophisticated evaluation framework expressed in evaluating the person, which takes it all into acct. A person’s evaluation is already an evaluation of the things he’s done.

    No one gets praised for his DNA setup or education alone. If someone does get praised for education, it is a reflexion on his effort to get it (and his parents efforts to get the money to pay for it).

    It is interesting to see that this truth was trying to get out at the end of Robin’s post, but he was conditioned by own (and societal) values to suppress it.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Appreciating deeds are ideas is hard, it requires discernment: you don’t want to appreciate something that turns out wrong or evil (superstring theory? corn-based ethanol as a solution to the energy problem? Expropriating the Kulaks?). Ideas and deeds have real consequences, and their perceived value is ephemeral. Appreciating ‘successful people’ is easy, because ‘success’ is defined via their current, or recent, status. You can’t be wrong.

  • “No one gets praised for his DNA setup”.
    Well people do. But perhaps it’s bad form in our cohort, a bit of a reaction to the nepoticrats we technocrats compete with for resource control. Still, people, including the technocratically inclined, get praised for the DNA of the mates they attract. So I think the praise is considered acceptable if it’s one order removed from the recipient.

  • Booklegger

    The world would be better if we praised folks more for what they did than who they are.

    Sounds like a quote from my McDonald’s training manual. Their term of art is to give behavior feedback, not personality feedback.

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  • If we praised results instead of character, sure we would get better results, but what would it say about our characters?

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