Organic Prestige Doesn’t Scale

Some parts of our world, such as academia, rely heavily on prestige to allocate resources and effort; individuals have a lot of freedom to choose topics, and are mainly rewarded for seeming impressive to others. I’ve talked before about how some hope for a “Star Trek” future where most everything is done that way, and I’m now reading Walkaway, outlining a similar hope. I was skeptical:

In academia, many important and useful research problems are ignored because they are not good places to show off the usual kinds of impressiveness. Trying to manage a huge economy based only on prestige would vastly magnify that inefficiency. Someone is going to clean shit because that is their best route to prestige?! (more)

Here I want to elaborate on this critique, with the help of a simple model. But first let me start with an example. Imagine a simple farming community. People there spend a lot of time farming, but they must also cook and sew. In their free time they play soccer and sing folk songs. As a result of doing all these things, they tend to “organically” form opinions about others based on seeing the results of their efforts at such things. So people in this community try hard to do well at farming, cooking, sewing, soccer, and folk songs.

If one person put a lot of effort into proving math theorems, they wouldn’t get much social credit for it. Others don’t naturally see outcomes from that activity, and not having done much math they don’t know how to judge if this math is any good. This situation discourages doing unusual things, even if no other social conformity pressures are relevant.

Now let’s say that in a simple model. Let there be a community containing people j, and topic areas i where such people can create accomplishments aij. Each person j seeks a high personal prestige pj = Σi vi aij, where vi is the visibly of area i. They also face a budget constraint on accomplishment, Σi aij2 ≤ bj. This assumes diminishing returns to effort in each area.

In this situation, each person’s best strategy is to choose aij proportional to vi. Assume that people tend to see the areas where they are accomplishing more, so that visibility vi is proportional to an average over individual aij. We now end up with many possible equilibria having different visibility distributions. In each equilibria, for all individuals j and areas i,k we have the same area ratios aij / akj = Vi/ Vk.

Giving individuals different abilities (such as via a budget constraint Σi aij2 / xij ≤ bj) could make individual choose somewhat different accomplishments, but the same overall result obtains. Spillovers between activities in visibility or effort can have similar effects. Making some activities be naturally more visible might push toward those activities, but there could still remain many possible equilibria.

This wide range of equilibria isn’t very reassuring about the efficiency of this sort of prestige. But perhaps in a small foraging or farming community, group selection might over a long run push toward an efficient equilibria where the high visibility activates are also the most useful activities. However, larger societies need a strong division of labor, and with such a division it just isn’t feasible for everyone to evaluate everyone else’s specific accomplishments. This can be solved either by creating a command and status hierarchy that assigns people to tasks and promotes by merit, or by an open market with prestige going to those who make the most money. People often complain that doing prestige in these ways is “inauthethnic”, and they prefer the “organic” feel of personally evaluating others’ accomplishments. But while the organic approach may feel better, it just doesn’t scale.

In academia today, patrons defer to insiders so much regarding evaluations that disciplines become largely autonomous. So economists evaluate other economists based mostly on their work in economics. If someone does work both in economics and also in aother area, they are judged mostly just on their work in economics. This penalizes careers working in multiple disciplines. It also suggests doubts on if different disciplines get the right relative support – who exactly can be trusted to make such a choice well?

Interestingly, academic disciplines are already organized “inorganically” internally. Rather than each economist evaluating each other economist personally, they trust journal editors and referees, and then judge people based on their publications. Yes they must coordinate to slowly update shared estimates of which publications count how much, but that seems doable informally.

In principle all of academia could be unified in this way – universities could just hire the candidates with the best overall publication (or citation) record, regardless of in which disciplines they did what work. But academia hasn’t coordinated to do this, nor does it seem much interested in trying. As usual, those who have won by existing evaluation criteria are reluctant to change criteria, after which they would look worse compared to new winners.

This fragmented prestige problem hurts me especially, as my interests don’t fit neatly into existing groups (academic and otherwise). People in each area tend to see me as having done some interesting things in their area, but too little to count me as high status; they mostly aren’t interested in my contributions to other areas. I look good if you count my overall citations, for example, but not if you only my citations or publications in each specific area.

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  • ppp

    Typo: I think “Each person i seeks” should be “Each person j seeks”

    • RobinHanson

      Fixed; thanks.

  • KieranMac

    You are very high status among so-called rationalists, but I suppose few of them have high status. And I think that people who seek out polymath-ish influences value what you do and know who you are.

    Given that you already more respected among those people than with traditional economists and academics, perhaps the best strategy is to embrace that path to prestige.

    I worked for many years at one of the most prestigious law firms in the world. Then I left to go out on my own. Now, I do more interesting things, charge a fraction of my former rates, and I’m way better at what I do. But from a status and prestige perspective, at the moment, I’m a nobody. But I hope that the cumulative value of my non-traditional endeavors may lead to greater prestige eventually.

    I guess the question is: what’s more important to you, competing for status on someone else’s (perhaps political, crony, artificially constrained, or inefficiently structured) terms or doing what you think is valuable and seeing how your status unfolds organically? Your actions seem to indicate that even you don’t think organic prestige scales, that it is still the way you hope to get recognized.

  • davidmanheim

    I generally agree with your thesis here, but this;
    “Universities could just hire the candidates with the best overall publication (or citation) record, regardless of in which disciplines they did what work. But academia hasn’t coordinated to do this, nor does it seem much interested in trying.”

    The degree to which Goodhart’s law already distorts academic incentives makes this suggestion silly. They’ve tried to make academic work easier to quantify, and it’s both failed, and hurt academia.

    • RobinHanson

      Why do you think simple-minded publication counting works within disciplines but not across multiple disciplines?

      • davidmanheim

        It doesn’t work well even within disciplines at this point, hence the move towards different bibliometric appraoches – all of which are subject to goodhart’s law. And now that publication count matters, people publish shoddier work in lower tier journals ( ) and attempting multiple publications (piecemeal publication) is becoming a more prominent problem. Within a single discipline, though, 12 publications means 12 publications, and cheating of the type mentioned above is easy for those acquainted with the field to notice, and account for. Not only is it much harder to notice these problems across disciplines, but the standards differ between disciplines. The naive approach would lead to counting as the same a physics paper where the author is one of over a hundred authors, a publication of a fragment of a single research project, original mathematical proofs, and a novel literary analysis.

      • Tyrrell_McAllister

        Different disciplines have very different standards for what a “good” number of publications is. Producing n publications per year might be very respectable in one discipline but laughably unproductive in another.

        People within a discipline are better informed about what a given publication rate says about the quality of the academic producing at that rate.

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  • QuintinPope

    Spelling/grammar corrections:

    “could make individual choose somewhat different”
    should be
    “could make individuals choose somewhat different”

    “high visibility activates are also the most useful activities”
    should be
    “high visibility activities are also the most useful activities”

    “in economics and also in aother area, they are judged mostly”
    should be
    “in economics and also in another area, they are judged mostly”

    “but not if you only my citations or publications”
    should be
    “but not if you only count my citations or publications”

    I’d suggest using test to speech software to catch these sorts of mistakes in the future. Hearing the post read to you really makes them easy to spot.

  • Doug Jones

    Maybe of interest: I did a model more or less like this one, of prestige among people with varying abilities. There are indeed has many equilibria in the model, some relatively egalitarian, some less so. In the model, kin selection combines with between-group selection to favor “socially enforced nepotism,” where you’re nice to distant kin who will never repay you, because it raises your prestige.