Against Prestige

My life has been, in part, a series of crusades. First I just wanted to understand as much as possible. Then I focused on big problems, wondering how to fix them. Digging deeper I was persuaded by economists: our key problems are institutional. Yes we can have lamentable preferences and cultures. But it is hard to find places to stand and levers to push to move these much, or even to understand the effects of changes. Institutions, in contrast, have specific details we can change, and economics can say which changes would help.

I learned that the world shows little interest in the institutional changes economists recommend, apparently because they just don’t believe us. So I focused on an uber institutional problem: what institutions can we use to decide together what to believe? A general solution to this problem might get us to believe economists, which could get us to adopt all the other economics solutions. Or to believe whomever happens to be right, when economists are wrong. I sought one ring to rule them all.

Of course it wasn’t obvious that a general solution exists, but amazingly I did find a pretty general one: prediction markets. And it was also pretty simple. But, alas, mostly illegal. So I pursued it. Trying to explain it, looking for everyone who had said something similar. Thinking and hearing of problems, and developing fixes. Testing it in the lab, and in the field. Spreading the word. I’ve been doing this for 28 years now. (Began at age 29.)

And I will keep at it. But I gotta admit it seems even harder to interest people in this one uber solution than in more specific solutions. Which leads me to think that most who favor specific solutions probably do so for reasons other than the ones economists give; they are happy to point to economist reasons when it supports them, and ignore economists otherwise. So in addition to pursuing this uber fix, I’ve been studying human behavior, trying to understand why we seem so disinterested.

Many economist solutions share a common feature: a focus on outcomes. This feature is shared by experiments, incentive contracts, track records, and prediction markets, and people show a surprising disinterest in all of them. And now I finally think I see a common cause: an ancient human habit of strong deference to the prestigious. As I recently explained, we want to affiliate with the prestigious, and feel that an overly skeptical attitude toward them taints this affiliation. So we tend to let the prestigious in each area X decide how to run area X, which they tend to arrange more to help them signal than to be useful. This happens in school, law, medicine, finance, research, and more.

So now I enter a new crusade: I am against prestige. I don’t yet know how, but I will seek ways to help people doubt and distrust the prestigious, so they can be more open to focusing on outcomes. Not to doubt that the prestigious are more impressive, but that letting them run the show produces good outcomes. I will be happy if other competent folks join me, though I’m not especially optimistic. Yet. Yet.

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  • endril

    You are in a difficult spot to make this argument, aren’t you?

    “Prestige-oriented thinking is a big problem!” -Physics/AI/Economics super smarty man, known for impressive problem-solving creativity and a rare degree of intellectual honesty

    • I’m not asking you to let me run my area my way. I’m suggesting that you distrust everyone, including me, and hold us closer to outcome standards.

      • AG

        Assume you win your crusade and people play by the rules of the game as you wish them to play ( distrust everyone, including me, and hold us closer to outcome standards).

        Given the plasticity of values, winning your crusade doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome. How do you define an acceptable range of possible outcomes? Further, how do you measure the range of outcomes to know if people are playing by the rules you’d prefer?

      • What’s suspect is trying to use prestige against prestige. It’s an appeal to irrationality, supposedly in defense of rationality.

      • I do.

      • If prestige is destroyed, it’s not clear what would arise to fill the vacuum prestige created. Of course you would probably like it to be prediction markets, but prediction markets haven’t been optimized to fill the sociological criteria that prestige fulfills.

        To take a specific example, one can imagine that by taking down prestige, we’d replace our existing prestige equilibrium with a new dominance equilibrium (“rule by the strong”, as in feudal societies). This doesn’t seem like an improvement. Note dominance equilibria have prevailed in most historical societies and many present ones.

        It occurs to me that instead of saying “down with prestige”, one might be better off saying “we should trust prestigious experts more outside their domains of expertise”. In other words, give more credence to the opinion of a doctor who has some comment on how the legal system works, or a lawyer who has some comment on how the medical system works. This works with our existing evolved intuitions that prestigious people are great, and takes advantage of the fact that prestigious people, regardless of field, typically have a high level of general ability, while still working to solve the conflict of interest problem. This solution replaces our flawed prestige system with a specific upgraded thing.

        A concrete example of how this could work would be to require that the governing board of e.g. a group that regulates medicine consist of at least 50% non-doctors.

        I also think that attacking prestige as a whole looks kinda like killing a fly with a stick of TNT. If conflict of interest are what you’re worried about, why not just hammer on conflict of interest? Goodness knows humans love to gossip about hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

    • Silent Cal

      Surely a rejection of prestige is *more* credible coming from someone with prestige than from someone without it.

  • Lee Wang

    Be not bewitched by the false allure of prestige. Trust in outcomes not vain games. Rise creatures of inferior status!

  • Not sure if you’ve read Secrets of our Success by Joseph Henrich. I found it the best updated take on the importance of culture/gene co-evolution for human cognition and biases. One of favorite recent books. I’m convinced gene/culture co-ev is “the one ring to rule them all” in terms of explaining deep causes of quirks in human behavior.

    The relevant point here is Henrich argues people imitate norms, but this is not centrally driven by prestige *per se* as much as you seem to assert here. It it emergent from norms/culture/tradition. (Hayek was on to something.) Monkey see monkey do is backwards. The human genius is human see human do. All cultural growth comes from this innate evolved ability/tendency, as a deep human need to imitate allows cultural growth built on learned behavior. E.g. language. Lamarkian cultural evolution. This is why prestige comes by signally heavily your investment into norms/traditions. But it’s not the big man chief that undergird everything at root. It’s norms.

    Thus, it’s not clear going after prestige people directly is getting to the root. Often change comes when couched as a return to tradition. So for example claiming the US revolution was merely going back to what England had always stated as their ideals. Brilliant marketing! As arguably very much was in fact new.

    The question is whether you can frame prediction markets in a similar fashion. As somehow a return to “true” norms of the world western tradition/global progressive tradition/etc. And those fighting them are going against our best traditions. Non-believers in prediction markets are hurting the poor, hurting the sick, against democracy, hurting the very bedrock of our civilization. People against prediction markets are heretics holding us back from our traditional norms and truths. Even if this is BS or exaggerated, that framing is the way to win. Plus as a side note it makes logical sense. But that’s just a minor bonus which helps with pointy heads. On the other hand, attacking norms directly is exposing yourself as red flag enemy. And attacking prestigious people is far worse, as you attack the paper mache figure head, who everyone at some level knows is blowing a bit of smoke, and readily replaced. In some sense it is the worst tactic to convince people, even if from a pure Spock logic point of view it seems to make the most sense.

  • Bruce Beegle

    This sounds quite similar to Feynman’s “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

    • Surely belief in the ignorance of experts doesn’t make one scientific!

  • David Condon

    It sounds like you’re opposed to a pyramid management system. There is likely relevant research in the business literature and related fields (industrial engineering, logistics, I/O Psychology) related to your problem although I’m not very familiar with it.

    My current opinion is that most of the alternatives are even worse. There are ways to improve upon the system such as by incorporating independent feedback or feedback from workers lower on the pyramid, but those still have the pyramid at its base.

    Sure, prediction markets may be superior in certain circumstances, but you’re talking about destroying the existing system in the hopes that a better system will take its place. That is unlikely. Think of the history of government revolutions across the planet or the failures of nation building. To me, you’re talking like a nation builder. You want to revolutionize when you should rather be working to improve incrementally.

    • No I’m not opposed to management pyramids.

      • Then treat it as a metaphor. You declare war on prestige before having a replacement.

      • sanxiyn

        Why do we need the replacement? We declared war on smallpox before having a replacement, and it went well.

      • David Condon

        Because Robin Hanson is not opposed to pyramid management, he needs to state a replacement. People currently reach the top of the pyramid by accumulating various forms of prestige (through experience, education, and honorary distinctions such as attending a top school). If he wishes to eliminate prestige but not pyramid management, then he needs to propose a replacement method for people to reach the top of the pyramid.

  • The observation that we could double the economy every month or so by known physics, but empirically require 15 years instead, makes it seem doubtful that anyone knows much about what they are talking about. This makes it appear much more likely that most prestige is allocated to overspecialised “lunatics” whose understanding outside their narrow specialization (and perhaps within) is lacking in severe and debilitating ways.

  • Steve Hazel

    It seems to me that both of the following can be achieved via the same method:
    A) Getting to Em
    B) Getting people to focus on outcomes

    The method involves a person digitizing their choices or actions in a way that legitimate predictions of arbitrary complexity can be fed back to nudge them toward “better” behavior.

    If we can accept that all problems and their solutions are rooted in behavior, then a method for effectively adjusting behavior can solve any problem. Or at least get people closer to solutions.

    Once enough behavior is digitized and voluntarily connected, a vast number of new possibilities open up like advanced communication, augmented intelligence, real-time research data, and so on.

    To get to Em, both A) keep accumulating data and crank up the predictive ability (e.g. existing AI techniques) and B) apply our newly-augmented intelligence to the problem at hand. Between A and B, a non-destructive Em is possible and, in my case, already begun.

    I’ve written up the basics here, and there’s more background available too:

  • Zhang Tingyu

    Yeah, let’s do this. I think you’d get along with Nassim Taleb, at least on this precise point.

  • Daniel O’Neil

    How do you untangle the foregone conclusion that prestige tends to create with the outcomes themselves?

  • Lord

    Some economists aren’t interested in outcomes, but more commonly it is the public. Most people are too busy to be bothered; they have their own concerns to deal with, and it is too much to ask for anything different. There are some who are interested in outcomes, but often it is in different outcomes. Peoples priorities differ, they will focus on problems most salient to them and on outcomes they want to see. Distrust of the prestigious when it would seek to shift focus away from our priorities and on outcomes we don’t want to see, is at least as great a problem. If prestige is a problem, self centeredness is an even greater one. We are just expedient in choosing the prestigious to give us the answers we want to hear rather than figuring everything out ourselves.

  • Core problem seems simple: in evol past, failing to associate with a high-prestige led to death. It even has meta-effects (“That naive man doesn’t even know how to play the game! He’ll never go anywhere in life, I won’t waste time helping him with anything!”).

    Leaders enable coordination which is often efficient.

    My guess is, one way to untrain this instinct would be to publicly insult the prestigious constantly re: their poor outcomes, and show -by example- that nothing bad happens to you as a result.

    …*does* give more insight into Taleb’s activities…

    • one way to untrain this instinct would be to publicly insult the prestigious constantly

      Isn’t constantly insulting the prestigious Donald Trump’s strategy?

      In fact, it’s a demagogic trick – which Robin naively embraces. Any general attack on prestige merely elevates the prestige of the attacker (and perhaps more generally redistributes prestige – usually for the worse).

      • There certainly is a “congruence” strategy (where you try to mix your prestige with the target’s).

        Probably, a refinement would be to try to lower the target’s status, as well as your own (“You’re a moron, Mr. X, same as me!”) while all the while continuing an emphasis on outcomes.

  • Johnicholas

    If I understand correctly, in advocating for prediction markets you advocate (starting with) real-money prediction markets, where the traders are human. I think you might have more traction among people like me (programmers) if you instead demonstrated fake-money prediction markets where the traders are algorithms.

    Can you denoise an image using one security for every bit of every pixel of the image, for example?

    • That sort of thing has already been done.

  • Robert Koslover

    Ok, I am, like, totally 100% behind you on this! That is, if and/or until someone whom I perceive to be more prestigious than you disagrees with your new plan. Cuz then, forget it! 🙂

    • Robert Koslover

      p.s. It is hard to deny that my mockery of the above is itself evidence supporting Robin’s other recent essay, lamenting “unauthorized topics.” But I only mention this, because showing that I understand that subtle connection could tend to raise my status among the intellectuals reading here. So, I guess you might say what I’m really doing is just “signaling” or… oh nevermind!

  • How would you distinguish between power and prestige?

    It seems to me that prestige is mostly a proxy for power.

    • froginthewell

      That is the standard leftist narrative, but the reality is subtler, e.g., see:

      • I guess I’m using power as synonymous with “inlfuence” (perhaps that’s the word I should have used then). In which case I feel like they are still the same.

        Someone with a six pack a Harvard degree would exert more influence/power as a result of their prestige.

        Maybe there’s something more subtle I’m missing?

      • froginthewell

        Or it could be that I misconstrued what you meant by power: if you

  • Daniel Morgan

    This seems too meta. It would probably be easier to become sufficiently prestigious than make people neutral to prestige. Relying on prestige is a heuristic deeply ingrained.

    Where economists have the most power is where they have adorned themselves in the clothing of prestige.

    You have to play the game. You don’t always get to choose the rules.

  • Ronfar

    Can a prediction market settle the question of which, if any, religion is correct? Any decision procedure that can’t settle that question to people’s satisfaction is unlikely to get much traction in the real world.

    • sanxiyn

      Prediction market can settle questions like whose intercession of prayer is most effective. Is it Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Jesus, Muhammad (PBUH), or none of the above? (I used intercession as example, because supposedly all those prayers go to the same god.)

      Maybe those bet on praying in the name of Jesus will profit; we can wait for the result. Whether the result gives evidence to the question of which religion is correct is different matter. I think it does, but many disagree.

  • Matthew Light

    So do you think your own beliefs are influenced by prestige?

  • Edward Giese

    Thanks for writing this. I share your affinity for looking for big solutions and am about your age. It is a lifelong learning process.

    The problem with being against prestige is that it is logically self defeating. With limited time to evaluate, how else is one to decide whom to trust? If someone is actually successful at giving good advice, prestige will rise. Is that to trigger more skepticism? There isn’t enough time in life to follow that path.

    Perhaps rather than rejecting prestige, you ought to figure out how to revive the concept of wisdom. I suppose at your age, it could be construed as self-serving, but our culture’s worship of the youthful disrupter has gone overboard to our detriment.

    Unrelated, and offered gently: please google the ‘disinterested and uninterested’ and take up that cause as well.

  • Those of us in the flyover states are not impressed by prestige. We don’t trust the self-anointed experts because they are under the impression that they know how we should live, and we better like it.

  • there are few books which detected – the process of questioning prestigious persons is already going.
    say or

    as for good outcomes – still to set up them requires some organization. average people tend to herd like cats – so some directed movement is very difficult to achieve.

    so I’m for something like wikipedia where 1. questioning of authority is summarized and 2. good approaches with better outcomes are listed
    I don’t think the project will be easy to maintain – but still I hope that such project is feasible

  • guyinadiner

    Biases play a large part in inflating or debunking prestige. I, for example, would think that an Asian male engineering student at, say, the Colorado School of Mines was pursuing a far more prestigious degree than a non-white/Asian non-male (take your pick) pursuing a Gender Studies degree at Stanford. I realize I am terribly biased in this regard.

  • I think the big knot here is the murky middle ground between short term accuracy, long term accuracy, and prestige.

    I’d say a decent definition of modern prestige is ‘being involved in high-profile events over long time scales’

    Given how many aspects of accuracy in such events aren’t public knowledge, involvement is taken as a proxy for having at least some good ideas/analysis. If you are really after untangling this, I think that’s the point to attack. How do you get social acceptable, incentive compatible sharing of who made the right call in private situations.

  • Well… Status is usually allocated based on prestige or dominance. In other words, who makes the best impression or who can exert the most force. Prestige seems to act as the lesser of two evils, since we don’t like tyranny or violent conflict.

    Is there another option? Are we trying to overcome reliance on “status” completely? Or is it more that we would prefer different measures of prestige / different methods of dominance be used?

    Automated systems seem to not have status in the human sense. But you do end up having parts that control other parts. As long as humans (or ems) are a functional part of the mechanism by which work gets done, it seems like we can’t avoid either dominance or prestige coming into play.

    • > Or is it more that we would prefer different measures of prestige / different methods of dominance be used?

      It was that one. The alt measure = “outcomes”.

      • Then Robin’s declamations against prestige seem to me to be disingenuous. He isn’t against prestige but wants to redistribute it based on concrete outcomes. This is indeed a sophisticated version of the Trump/”successful-businessman” ideology: put your bets on the successful.

        Like all general attacks on prestige, it leads to increased influence by the merely dominant: those in the best position to have a track record. The obfuscation is that the interpretation of which outcomes are relevant is highly subjective.

        [We shouldn’t let go to waste (taking accoun of the risk of overly anecdotal reasoning) the example Trump provides of the results of an attack on “prestige.”]

        Prestige was objectively useful to primordial humans because it was relatively uncontaminated by dominance.

        For my take on the relationship between prestige and dominance, see “Status inflation and deflation: Prestige, the essence of status, permits broad alliances” – ( )

  • BenK

    Fighting prestige, like fighting dogma, is usually a ‘softening up’ prior to changing the king of the hill. Flattening the hill is not really an option.

  • Well, that’s easy. Point out Tyler Cowen’s knowledge is an inch deep.

  • a6z

    You are not the first to observe that prestige is the second economic driver of mankind, second after material consideration. And that an economics of prestige is needed.

    This is the most urgent part of the general project of expanding the extremely parsimonious psychological basis of economics. Economics has done a great deal with just 3 wants about material consideration:
    1. We want more.
    2. We want it sooner.
    3. We want it more certainly.

    … and the first two out of three we share with other animals.

  • free_agent

    Naive economics suggests we are all happily cooperating to advance a common good, viz., the gross domestic product of our nation-state. Less naive economics suggests we are all trying to maximize the value of our personal consumption. A careful reading of “The Selfish Gene” suggests we are all trying to maximize our social status in our immediate social group. So the question is, In what way can adopting prediction markets improve my status vis a vis the people with whom I am competing for jobs, promotions, mates?

    As my sales trainer said, you aren’t selling to a corporation, you are selling to a person — the person who authorizes the payment to you. Who are you selling prediction markets to? What makes them happy?

    • free_agent

      I read somewhere that investment managers are trying to “hedge” the possibility of Trump being elected, i.e., buy an investment that will reliably become more valuable if that happens. Apparently the popular choice is shorts on the Mexican peso. It seems that “Trump wins” shares on a prediction market would be ideal for this. — So what are the forces that work against implementing prediction markets for this purpose?

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    > I will seek ways help people doubt and distrust the prestigious, so they can be more open to focusing on outcomes.

    There is a lot doubt and distrust in the prestigious to build on. You write in Future Fears that

    > We fear powerful people who feel free to defy us.

    So just make it appear as if their ultimate power is imminent. 🙂

    > Not to doubt that the prestigious are more impressive, but that letting them run the show produces good outcomes.

    As above that doubt is already there. Making it appear more immediate or ominous might work – though this feels like dark art and I wonder whether it is practical.

  • Agreed that prediction markets are the best method out there (and that they should not be illegal), but … Prediction markets are sometimes wrong:

    • But you knew that from the fact that their predictions are not 100% confident.

  • And one rule to ring them all.

  • Hopaulius

    Did not the prediction markets favor “Remain” up until and including voting day? And on “affiliating with the prestigious,” Rene Girard was two generations ahead of you. He called it mimetic desire: we imitate our models. The solution, however, is not to rid the world of models, which in the case of RH would eliminate RH.

    • andagain

      I believe the implied probability of success for remain was ~ 75%. So according to the prediction market, there was a one-in-four chance it would be wrong.

  • G Diego Vichutilitarian

    Count me in Robin!

  • Grant

    What about the strategy you and many other GMU economists seem to use? Bet on outcomes and shame those who refuse to bet. Is it not working?

  • This is a really important insight. And prediction markets saying 75%, will be “wrong” about 25% of the time …

    Focus on Outcomes — sounds simple. But look at politics, it’s not.

  • Patrick

    I think this is an excellent idea. It might just become my new religion.

    But I think the first challenge is to try to understand the circumstances in which prestige IS a good indicator: for example, Djokovic will generally beat Murray 9 times out 10, Le Bron will make your team better than anyone else will.

  • Wayne Radinsky

    “Many economist solutions share a common feature: a focus on outcomes.” […] “And now I finally think I see a common cause: an ancient human habit of strong deference to the prestigious.”

    Or: maybe prestige is not the explanation. I think the reason people don’t care about outcomes is morality. What I mean by this is, for example, if changing a law produces a better outcome, but people feel it allows morally “wrong” behavior, then people are against changing the law.

    Now, maybe Hanson is one step ahead of me and arguing people are forming their moral beliefs based on “prestige”. I’m not sure. He never uses the word “morality” (or related words like “moral”) in the piece, but he uses “believe” many times.