Bowing To Elites

Imagine that that you are a politically savvy forager in a band of size thirty, or a politically savvy farmer near a village of size thousand. You have some big decisions to make, including who to put in various roles, such as son-in-law, co-hunter, employer, renter, cobbler, or healer. Many people may see your choices. How should you decide?

Well first you meet potential candidates in person and see how much you intuitively respect them, get along with them, and can agree on relative status. It isn’t enough for you to have seen their handiwork, you want to make an ally out of these associates, and that won’t work without respect, chemistry, and peace. Second, you see what your closest allies think of candidates. You want to be allies together, so it is best if they also respect and get along with your new allies.

Third, if there is a strong leader in your world, you want to know what that leader thinks. Even if this leader says explicitly that you can do anything you like, they don’t care, if you get any hint whatsoever that they do care, you’ll look closely to infer their preferences. And you’ll avoid doing anything they’d dislike too much, unless your alliance is ready to mount an overt challenge.

Fourth, even if there is no strong leader, there may be a dominant coalition encompassing your band or town. This is a group of people who tend to support each other, get deference from others, and win in conflicts. We call these people “elites.” If your world has elites, you’ll want to treat their shared opinions like those of a strong leader. If elites would gossip disapproval of a choice, maybe you don’t want it.

What if someone sets up objective metrics to rate people in suitability for the roles you are choosing? Say an archery contest for picking hunters, or a cobbler contest to pick cobblers. Or public track records of how often healer patients die, or how long cobbler shoes last. Should you let it be known that such metrics weigh heavily in your choices?

You’ll first want to see what your elites or leader think of these metrics. If they are enthusiastic, then great, use them. And if elites strongly oppose, you’d best only use them when elites can’t see. But what if elites say, “Yeah you could use those metrics, but watch out because they can be misleading and make perverse incentives, and don’t forget that we elites have set up this whole other helpful process for rating people in such roles.”

Well in this case you should worry that elites are jealous of this alternative metric displacing their advice. They like the power and rents that come from advising on who to pick for what. So elites may undermine this metric, and punish those who use it.

When elites advise people on who to pick for what, they will favor candidates who seem loyal to elites, and punish those who seem disloyal, or who aren’t sufficiently deferential. But since most candidates are respectful enough, elites often pick those they think will actually do well in the role. All else equal, that will make them look good, and help their society. While their first priority is loyalty, looking good is often a close second.

Since humans evolved to be unconscious political savants, this is my basic model to explain the many puzzles I listed in my last post. When choosing lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pundits, teachers, and more, elites put many obstacles in the way of objective metrics like track records, contests, or prediction markets. Elites instead suggest picking via personal impressions, personal recommendations, and school and institution prestige. We ordinary people mostly follow this elite advice. We don’t seek objective metrics, and instead use elite endorsements, such as the prestige of where someone went to school or now works. In general we favor those who elites say have the potential to do X, over those who actually did X.

This all pushes me to more favor two hypotheses:

  1. We choose people for roles mostly via evolved mental modules designed mainly to do well at coalition politics. The resulting system does often pick people roughly well for their roles, but more as a side than a direct effect.
  2. In our society, academia reigns as a high elite, especially on advice for who to put in what roles. When ordinary people see another institution framed as competing directly with academia, that other institution loses. Pretty much all prestigious institutions in our society are seen as allied with academia, not as competing with it. Even religions, often disapproved by academics, rely on academic seminary degrees, and strongly push kids to gain academic prestige.

We like to see ourselves as egalitarian, resisting any overt dominance by our supposed betters. But in fact, unconsciously, we have elites and we bow to them. We give lip service to rebelling against them, and they pretend to be beaten back. But in fact we constantly watch out for any actions of ours that might seem to threaten elites, and we avoid them like the plague. Which explains our instinctive aversion to objective metrics in people choice, when such metrics compete with elite advice.

Added 8am: I’m talking here about how we intuitively react to the possibility of elite disapproval; I’m not talking about how elites actually react. Also, our intuitive reluctance to embrace track records isn’t strong enough to prevent us from telling specific stories about our specific achievements. Stories are way too big in our lives for that. We already norms against bragging, and yet we still manage to make our selves look good in stories.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , ,
Trackback URL:
  • arch1

    Robin, why do you think this phenomenon persists when apparently a lot of money could be made exploiting (and as a side effect, reducing) it? Does it only persist in certain circumstances where such money couldn’t be made?

    • fdvdfv

      This is probably a big part of the civilizational cycle.

      In the “warring states” eras merit matters, as elites live on a knife-edge where poor performance by subordinates could mean their destruction. In these eras the above consideration matters.

      In the “empire” eras elites can suppress any rivals that try to undercut the system, and so can lean more towards favoring loyalty…until they go too far (“decadence”), their vassals rebel, and it’s back to warring-states again.

      • IMASBA

        Indeed, and the politically savvy forager with the power to appoint people to all kinds of roles never existed.

      • Foragers choose mates, son-in-laws, hunting & gathering partners, arrow makers, etc.

      • IMASBA

        For foragers there’s no asymmetry: your hunting partner chooses you as much as you choose him and since you’ll have about the same number of children as everybody else your choice (more like recommendation in practice, they don’t have forced marriages or parental vetoes because they have no heritable property) of sons or daughters in law doesn’t give you power over the tribe. The arrow maker appoints himself, or when he’s really terrible at it, gets rejected by the group.

      • I don’t need asymmetry for my argument.

      • jpt4

        Aside from the coarse grained asymmetry of the general presence of dominant coalitions, no? “Deferring to elite preference” provides the elites with role-assignment ability by proxy. If this population level influence imbalance didn’t exist, political appraisal would tend to diminish in importance in favor of appraisal by objective metric. It would seem the pillars of your argument do include the asymmetry of authority.

      • I gather that in Robin’s account a proclivity to bow to dominant coalitions arises from our basic aptitude for coalition politics.

    • Value could be gained by ordinary customers, but that isn’t at all the same as money gained by intermediaries. To make lots of money, you’d have to convince customers to grab that value, and you’d have to somehow keep a monopoly on that process.

      • cole

        There is already an existing business model for such problems. You provide a website that lowers search costs for consumers, and charges producers to advertise on the website. You can even pretend to align yourself with academia by including academia related search criteria.

      • arch1

        Oops, I see on rereading that the money-making scenario I had in mind when making my comment (firms hiring truly productive, as opposed to just impressive, employees) was perhaps not covered by your hypothesis. But if not, why not?

    • blink

      I also wonder about this. The explanation fits well for donation to charities and the like. For hiring, retention, and promotion decision, it seems that the profit motive is quite strong.

      For example, I understand Robin as saying that firms are leaving large amounts of money on the table by relying on coarse evaluations and expert recommendations rather than, say, prediction markets. Why don’t these incentives win out? Why don’t the same arguments that suggest profit motives counter racism and other pernicious vices apply with equal force?

      • Choices within firms can favor internal coalitions a the expense of the firm: When we all let elites kill objective metrics, so no one can use them, then no one firm is any worse off than any other.

      • IMASBA

        Yes. Similarly corruption within firms still exists: it’s inefficient for the firm but beneficial to (some) individuals and coalitions within firms and because no firm is immune to corruption firms can be corrupt and still be competitive.

  • Lawyer

    This seems like another case of Robin Hanson being baffled by something completely obvious because he hasn’t made a serious effort to understand it, at least with respect to law

    Suppose people ran races against each other. The pairing was non-random but not orderly or predictable. Different races were different distances, and different participants in the same race might be required to run different distances. Terrain varied widely between races, and again between participants in the same race. Race outcomes had multiple dimensions beyond merely time to the finish line. There was no actual record of which participant ran which distance or on what terrain, and in many races almost no information was available besides the fact that a race was run. Racers had varying degrees of control over all of these factors. For the racer you’re betting on, you don’t know the distance or terrain and have only a vague sense of the victory metrics. How useful would it be to know that a racer had a particular record, vs knowing that the racer was, for example, in a division 1 vs a division 3 racing school, or if a friend had had experience watching the racer in action and observed that he seemed to be an highly skilled racer?

    Measuring legal outcomes is incredibly difficult. Facts often decide cases, and lawyers don’t make facts. Lawyers may also have significant adverse incentives if they are worried about track record – they may be more inclined to take a case to an expensive and risky trial rather than to settle or plea bargain, depending on how the metric works. Many settlements are confidential. It’s incredibly complicated to evaluate past case performance. You also don’t know the merits of your particular case. And there’s a major cost factor – many litigants would rather have a cheaper but less successful lawyer than a really effective but expensive. It’s possible it’s not used as a signal because it’s a really, really noisy one. I’m not actually sure how you’d build settlement into a win rate – and the vast majority of both criminal and civil cases settle.

    There is one important factor you don’t seem to consider, which is whether winning matters to the customer. In the abstract, a corporation would like the best outcome at the lowest price. In reality, the individual making the hiring decision wants an outcome that doesn’t end in him getting fired or judged negatively for making a bad hiring decision. Thus, there is some value to the agent in selecting a high status firm, because if things go terribly he can’t be blamed for that decision. If he hires a lower status or cheaper firm, he may get blamed when things turn out poorly, even if the negative outcome is entirely independent of the hiring decision. I’m not sure this motivates win rates being used as a measurement, but it likely is a bias.

    This likely applies to doctors, as well, though perhaps less so for certain more measurable conditions – you can probably measure the factors relevant to heart surgery than you can many lawsuits. Similarly, though, since you can’t actually know the counter factual of hiring someone else, a doctor having a good reputation gives someone the comfort of mind that they can’t be blamed for making a poor hiring decision. Outcome dependent measurements are probably much too noisy to provide similar information.

    • charlie

      There is one major law firm that publishes their “win rates”–it’s called Quinn Emmanuel. They are roundly mocked for this within the profession.

      This is because it is mainly a trick designed to confuse people weened on TV/movie lawyer dramas movies where some superstar prosecutor “has never lost a case.”

      • But this mockery, its existence as well as its patrician form, actually supports Robin’s theory of bowing to elites.

      • charlie

        No, the mockery is because it’s objectively stupid and a trick to fool people who only know law from TV–not from “false consciousness” on the part of overly conservative lawyers who are intimidated by this truth-producing innovation.

        Consider win-rates on motions argued, which Quinn Emmanuel sometimes cite. Since there is often no negative repercussion for losing a motion, the optimal win-rate on motions filed is probably 30-40% from the perspective of the client. If you don’t file 50-50 motions, you are leaving some opportunities on the table.

        Now, there is no reason to know this if Law & Order is your only data point. But it really, literally is a trick to fool unsophisticated audiences.

      • But its objective stupidity is separate from the mockers’ motives. Law firms, after all, advertise using other stupid irrelevancies without incurring ridicule. Who should we care about what the partners and associates look like in their photos? (Because the deputy DA on Law & Order is cute?) Who should care much about the sheer number of years an attorney has practiced?

        I’m not even sure that the metric itself is worthless. Why not look at the record concerning oppositions to motions? (It would be relatively free of bias due to selection.)

  • But in fact we constantly watch out for any actions of ours that might seem to threaten elites, and we avoid them like the plague. Which explains our instinctive aversion to objective metrics in people choice, when such metrics compete with elite advice.

    Your explanation seems to suffer the same defect as many others: it doesn’t explain the specific aversion to total-performance data. First, we’re OK with some “objective metrics,” too. For example, when these metrics represent peak performance rather than total performance. Thus there’s a club for attorneys who have obtained a judgment for at least a million dollars. This is flaunted and highly regarded. Second, the elites would prefer we didn’t rely on word of mouth, etc.

    [To the extent that we do rely on elites, there may be good reason in that raw performance data may not beinterpretable without professional expertise. It seems ironic (if not contradictory) that Robin bemoans folks’ arrogance in disregarding expert opinion about facts while also complaining that folks place too much value on the opinions of elites, rather than pretending to be experts by going straight to the performance data.]

    To elaborate my counterexplanation: I think strong norms ordinarily prevent the display of total-performance data because such an audit is subconsciously registered as preliminary to ejection from the group.

    • Since concrete stories are so easy to tell and remember them, it is hard to prevent people spreading specific flattering stories about particular things that they did. This hardly disproves a general reluctance to create and use track records.

      • I agreed with you about reluctance. What I disproved is your veritable conspiracy theory about the power of generalized elites.

      • My story is about a cause of reluctance in the heads of people, due to attitudes inherited from ancestors. It isn’t about what elites actually do.

      • Why is it OK to bypass the elites and advertise your million-dollar lawsuit win? The reluctance is narrow, and that must be explained.

        I, too, am proceeding from a theory based on attitudes of our ancestors: attitudes toward free riders that make total-performance audits threatening.

  • Dermot Harnett

    Robin – I have a general question about your writing style.
    You often write about human behaviour, and then hypothesise the ultimate causes in terms of evolutionary psychology. In principle such ultimate causes would be entirely screened off by our knowledge of actual human psychology, if it were detailed enough. Though in practice it’s limited, most feel that examining this intermediate layer – the emotions and behaviors through which adaptions are implemented – is of at least some value. Particularly when our credibility for theories about human evolution can only be quite low anyway.

    Why do you never try to strengthen your arguments with reference to human psychology? For instance, you could describe an instance of someone imagining a professor, feeling deference/respect towards them, and hence heeding their advice to disregard exams etc.

    • The possible evidence you describe seems pretty weak to me. I’m opportunistic in describing whatever strong evidence occurs to me. Also a lot of this bypasses our conscious feelings.

      • Dermot Harnett

        Evolutionary psychology does generally try to talk about the implementation of behavioral adaptations though. For instance, it’s worthwhile noting that our disease avoidance behaviors are generally implemented as the feeling of disgust. This allows me to make more specific criticism of the idea. It’s also more useful if I want to know when I can and cannot trust my own intuitions.
        Do you think such evidence is bound to be weak in principle, or is it just that the necessary evidence hasn’t been gathered and studied yet?

  • adrianratnapala

    “Pretty much all prestigious institutions in our society are seen as allied with academia, not as competing with it.”

    That sentence only implies that academia is part of dominant group of institutions, it does not require (as the rest of the paragraph hints) that academia is the top dog.

    • Sure, but few others institutions are so involved in recommending people for positions.

  • Pingback: Recomendaciones | intelib()

  • Sam Dangremond

    Sounds like it’s about time to mount an overt challenge to academia.

    I, for one, welcome Peter Thiel and our new meritocratic overloads.

    • What exactly is it about noticing that they never lose a fight makes you want to pick a fight with them?

      • Sam Dangremond


        Fascinating that you didn’t say “us.” 🙂

    • Academia has influence precisely because it is our most meritocratic institution. Buying influence in the manner of the “intelllectual” billionaires is hardly meritocratic. Nor is their promoting of cronies to positions in the intellectual world.

      • Marvin VanArsdale

        This sounds more like back patting than reality.
        Sports are more meritocratic, as is chess. Why aren’t they the most influential?
        And academia has wildly varying levels of meritocracy.

      • Why aren’t they the most influential?

        In sports, merit determines success, but sports aren’t “meritocratic,” which means “government or the holding of power by those with the greatest ability.”

        In academia, power flows from merit. For example, top scholars edit journals. Top researchers blindly review journal submissions and get jobs for their students.

        And academia has wildly varying levels of meritocracy.

        I don’t know how “wildly” varying they are at the top institutions. But insofar as levels of meritocracy vary within academia, so does influence.

  • Silent Cal

    We have a hypothesis; let’s generate some predictions!

    All else equal, people should be more likely to use objective quality info (such as track records) when…
    1) they can do so secretly, or at least quietly.
    2) elite opinion is absent, weak or unclear.
    3) the outcome matters a lot.

    We apparently don’t look at track records when choosing lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pundits, teachers, and employees. Where do we look at track records? Generally when shopping on eBay and Amazon, where 1, 2, and to some extent 3 are true.

    But in my experience, when people predict which athletes they think will perform well, they readily cite track records (violating 1). And while our society’s overall elites may not care much which players you think will do well, sports has its own elite journalists, and if these don’t play the role of elites in other fields, that fact wants explanation.

    Politicians’ track records are also frequently analyzed, though in this case the elites tend to participate in the analysis, so it’s hard to say what to make of that.

    An interesting anecdatum is that people care a great deal about choosing a primary/secondary school whose students go to good colleges. So *a track record of impressing elites* gets attention.

    • Yes elites are unlikely to object to publishing track records of gaining elite approval, as that makes their approval more valuable. Since elites don’t now predict which people will win at sports, we don’t mind that celebrating those who actually win the sport contests. In fact, maybe we have things like sports in part so we can point people to harmless places where outcomes matter, so they use that to rationalize that they live in a just society.

  • JW Ogden

    It seems to me that this if true, it is a real problem for division of labor sorts of solutions. It might even be why we despise McDonald’s and Walmart and certain mass produced goods. If not for this attitude, could we have more factory like hospitals in which engineers design fool proof systems for lower paid less skilled practitioners? And might the results be better?

    • ipencil

      It might be why some (not “we”; don’t presume to speak for me, as I enjoy both McDonald’s and Walmart) despise McDonald’s, Walmart, and many other successful ventures that explicitly caters to the desires of the common man and lower classes. These business explicitly eschew high end goods, of which the elite desire and approve. As Robin makes clear, the elites will do their best to demonize anyone or any group that doesn’t bow to their preferences.

      Also, it’s unclear why you think that more hospitals is more desireable than more places offering food and clothing. I’d, also, like to know what you mean by “engineers design fool proof systems for lower paid less skilled practitioners”. First, there is no such thing as “fool proof” anything. Second, that you think that you should design the lives of “less skilled practitioners” is incredibly condescending.

      • JW Ogden

        Yes, I should have said “Some” and I meant hospitals that are more like factories.

      • Why do you reward petty carping? Of course, “we” wasn’t literal, as you were giving reasons that the prejudice is irrational.

  • In our society, academia reigns as a high elite, especially on advice for who to put in what roles.

    Academics don’t have the highest status. They don’t enjoy huge incomes. Their “power” is arcane.

    Who are the “elites”? I think the term was popularized by the leftist sociologist C. Wright Mills in “The Power Elite,” which was composed of three interlocked elites, the economic, political, and military. Academics didn’t even make the cut, not even to the extent of “Celebrities,” who were considered, but dismissed.

    [The notion that academia is an elite gives to me the appearance of a composite of an academic’s self-congratulation and the denunciation of “liberal elites” by the populist and libertarian right.]

    Perhaps a better model for the role of academia than one of being an elite of the usual kind (which, unless you’re remarkably powerful, will always be opposed to other elites) resembles the high-prestige folks in hunter-gather societies, their prestige largely meritocratic. (This doesn’t exclude that prestige must also have been deployed in somewhat self-interested ways.)

    [I consider the relationship between prestige and egalitarianism in “Status inflation and deflation: Prestige, the essence of status, permits broad alliances” — )

  • Grant

    Something I’ve been thinking about recently is medical licensing. The US restricts who can call themselves a medical doctor via licensing. This undoubtedly restricts the supply of doctors, even when compared to other countries which also have medical licensing.

    To which most people would reply “sure, but licensing improves the quality of doctors and weeds out the quacks”. In many cases it surely does, but look at the quantity (and quality) of legal alternative medicine. In effect we have a system which restricts the supply of legitimate doctors while allowing fraudsters and con-artists to run rampant. Does this seem completely insane to anyone else?

    The more I think about it, the more I believe a general prosecution of fraud would improve the performance of many markets. I’m surprised this isn’t something more libertarians talk about, as a dislike of fraud is at the core of their beliefs.

  • Pingback: Why are track records unpopular? | Meteuphoric()

  • Pingback: Telling you why I’m forever alone will further alienate me « Random Xpat Rantings()