Monthly Archives: July 2014

Near-Far Work Continues

I haven’t posted as much on near-far theory (= “construal level theory”) lately, but that’s more because my interests have wandered; research progress has continued. Here are four recent papers.

People who use more abstract language seem more powerful:

Power can be gained through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power. In the current article, we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Because power activates abstraction, perceivers may expect higher power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in 7 experiments, participants perceived respondents as more powerful when they used more abstract language (vs. more concrete language). Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking. (more)

Sounds evoke far mode when they are novel, slow, and reverberate more:

Psychological distance and abstractness primes have been shown to increase one’s level of construal. We tested the idea that auditory cues which are related to distance and abstractness (vs. proximity and concreteness) trigger abstract (vs. concrete) construal. Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations. The relative influence of distance/abstractness cues in sounds, as well as broader implications of the findings for basic research and applied settings, is discussed. (more)

Employees want concrete feedback from direct leaders and abstract vision from higher leaders:

Three studies tested the hypothesis, derived from construal-level theory, that hierarchical distance between leaders and followers moderates the effectiveness of leader behaviors such that abstract behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across large hierarchical distances, whereas concrete behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across small hierarchical distances. In Study 1 (N = 2,206 employees of a telecommunication organization), job satisfaction was higher when direct supervisors provided employees with concrete feedback and hierarchically distant leaders shared with them their abstract vision rather than vice versa. Study 2 orthogonally crossed hierarchical distances with communication type, operationalized as articulating abstract values versus sharing a detailed story exemplifying the same values; construal misfit mediated the interactive effects of hierarchical distance and communication type on organizational commitment and social bonding. Study 3 similarly manipulated hierarchical distances and communication type, operationalized as concrete versus abstract calls for action in the context of a severe professional crisis. Group commitment and participation in collective action were higher when a hierarchically proximate leader communicated a concrete call for action and a hierarchically distant leader communicated an abstract call for action rather than vice versa. These findings highlight construal fit’s positive consequences for individuals and organizations. (more)

Tasks look easier when they are far away:

Psychological distance can reduce the subjective experience of difficulty caused by task complexity and task anxiety. Four experiments were conducted to test several related hypotheses. Psychological distance was altered by activating a construal mind-set and by varying bodily distance from a given task. Activating an abstract mind-set reduced the feeling of difficulty. A direct manipulation of distance from the task produced the same effect: participants found the task to be less difficult when they distanced themselves from the task by leaning back in their seats. The experiments not only identify psychological distance as a hitherto unexplored but ubiquitous determinant of task difficulty but also identify bodily distance as an antecedent of psychological distance. (more)

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Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

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Firm Inefficiency

Economists are often stereotyped as claiming that firms are very economically efficient, i.e., that they very effectively minimize costs and maximize profits. This is a common source of derision of economists by other social scientists. And it is true that efficiency is the standard assumption made in textbooks and in math models. But over time I’ve been persuaded that it is often far from an accurate assumption. (And I doubt that most older economists believe it.)

I’ve been persuaded by a steady accumulation of plausible examples of widespread persistent inefficiencies. No one example is overwhelmingly obvious – all have stories for why they are only apparent inefficiencies. But added all together, they persuade me. Some examples:

  1. Threats Help Productivity – When firms face more competition, they often have big bursts of productivity. But if increases were possible, why not do them before?
  2. Long-Lasting Deadwood – Firms often keep employees who are widely known within the firm to not be pulling their weight relative to other employees. They tend to be fired during a downturn, or after a takeover.
  3. Not Invented Here – Firms are famously reluctant to adopt changes that appear to have been developed elsewhere, preferring instead changes for which someone internal can take credit.
  4. Shooting Messengers – Many firms greatly discourage passing bad news up to bosses. GM was just exposed as such a firm via a safety issue. Those who do pass bad news up are punished as if they were personally a big cause of the bad news.
  5. Yes Men – If bosses keep quiet about their opinion, they can evaluate subordinates via comparing employee opinions with boss opinion. But bosses consistently forgo this by telling subordinates lots of opinions and punishing those who question such opinions.
  6. Mergers & Acquisitions – Firms that buy and merge with other firms seem to consistently lose money.
  7. Poison Pills – Rules that discourage takeover attempts by financially penalizing such attempts prevent investors from getting more for their shares.
  8. Overpaid CEOs – It is far from clear that firms actually earn more when they hire more expensive CEOs.
  9. Too Many Meetings – It is widely believed that most firms hold too many meetings that go on too long with too many people.
  10. Too Many Interviews – It is hard to find much evidence that interviews add info on job performance. So why do candidates go through so many interviews?
  11. Biased Evaluations – Bosses consistently give lower evaluations to people they didn’t hire, relative to people they did hire. Yet official evaluations don’t correct for this.
  12. Excess Credentials – People consistently feel pressure to hire people whose credentials make them look good on paper, relative to people they believe would do a better job.
  13. Few Experiments – Firms tend to be reluctant to do experiments, such as to find preferred product variations. Experiments would force them to admit they don’t yet know.
  14. Few Track Records – Meetings are full of people making predictions on decision consequences, but firms almost never keep formal track records to rate accuracy.
  15. Reward Braggarts – Firms consistently neglect people who don’t toot their own horn, even when their superior features are widely known.
  16. Allow Info Silos – Groups and divisions with a firm are allowed to keep a lot of info secret within their group. Yet if the firm works together toward a common goal, what can be the benefit of keeping such secrets?
  17. Predictable Consultants – Management consultants are often hired at great expense to give advice that is quite predictable given the opinions of those who hired them.
  18. Little Telecommuting – Telecommuting seems to save big on costs, yet is not adopted much.
  19. Discrimination – Fat women are paid less, tall men paid more, in social jobs.
  20. Cubicles – They seem to reduce productivity more than they save in office space costs.
  21. I’ll add more here in response to suggestions.

My working hypothesis to explain these inefficiencies is that the people and supporting coalitions closest to them tend to gain from them, and that selection pressures on political coalitions are often much stronger than selection pressures on firms.

If many of these inefficiencies are real, then yes government regulators can also see them, and yes it might not be that hard for smart sincere people to design regulations to increase welfare by correcting for them. However, government regulatory agencies are also “inefficient” in many ways, leading them to choose and enforce regulations which differ from those that would most increase welfare. To judge if we are better off giving regulators more powers over firms, we must judge the relative magnitudes of these two types of inefficiencies.

Note that firm efficiency may still be a reasonable assumption to make in models, even if it is not an accurate assumption. Modeling is always a tradeoff between realism and understanding.

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