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We humans have many kinds of relationships with each other. We can be lovers, parents, children, teachers, students, priests, parishioners, customers, suppliers, drivers, passengers, writers, readers, etc.
Jealousy can make sense in most of these relations. Jealousy is a fear that potential associates will choose instead to associate with someone else. I can be jealous that my kids will like their mom better than me, that my students may prefer other teachers to me, or that blog readers may prefer to read other blogs.
Role specialization is a robust way to limit jealousy. If dads have different parental roles than moms, then my kids could like me best as a dad, and their mom best as a mom, and I less have to fear that they will substitute her for me. If I teach a particular course well, then my students can like me for being good at my course, and others for teaching their courses well, and I need less fear that few students will want me to teach them.
We use role specialization a lot, to great benefit, in our business and work lives. And traditional societies greatly specialized their personal and family relations. Genders, ages, and classes all had distinct roles to play. Wives and mistresses were even clearly distinguished. Since we have today weakened such role specialization, we now have more scope for jealousy in our personal and family relations.
One interesting exception is friendship. While friends sometimes specialize into more particular friendship roles, like “golf buddy”, and we are sometimes jealous of others supplanting our friend roles, such as “best friend”, both of these tendencies are noticeably weaker relative to non-friend relations. So much so that when people try to talk you out of being jealous in some other area, they usually point to friendships, as in, “You can have lots of friends without jealousy; why not do that with lovers too?”
Why treat friendships so differently? My guess is that friends, more than other relations, function in large part to cement our position in larger social coalitions. As a social species, we play a lot of coalition politics, and in coalition politics one needs many allies who themselves have many other allies. For this function jealousy makes a lot less sense. If my friends have more other friends, that makes them better not worse friends for me, if their function is to cement my position in a larger social alliance.
If you are going for a job that almost nobody is going to get, it’s worth trying to be unusual. Better that one in a hundred employers loves you and the rest hate you than all of them think you’re mediocre.
On the other hand, if you are going for a job that almost everybody who applies is going to get, best to be as close to normal as possible.
In general, if you expect to fall on the bad side of some important threshold, it’s good to increase your variance and maybe make it over. If you expect to fall on the good side, it’s good to decrease your variance and stay there. This is assuming you can change your variance without changing your mean too much.
Prospect theory and its collected evidence says that people are generally risk averse for gains, and risk seeking for losses. That is, if you offer them fifty dollars for sure or half a chance of a hundred, they’ll take the sure fifty. If you offer them minus fifty dollars for sure, or half a chance of minus one hundred, they’ll take the gamble. The proposed value function looks something like this:
Risk aversion in gains and risk seeking in losses is what you would expect if people were usually sitting right near an important threshold, regardless of how much they had gained or lost in the past. What important threshold might people always be sitting on top of, regardless of their movement?
One that occurs to me is their friends’ and acquaintances’ willingness to associate with them. Which I will explain in a minute.
Robin has suggested that people should have high variance when they are getting to know someone, to make it over the friend threshold. Then they should tone it down if they make it over, so they don’t fall back under again.
This was in terms of how much information a person should reveal. But suppose people take into account how successful your life is in deciding whether they want to associate with you. For a given friend’s admiration, you don’t have that much to gain by getting a promotion say, because you are already good enough to be their friend. You have more to lose by being downgraded in your career, because there is some chance they will lose interest in associating with you.
Depending on how good the friend is, the threshold will be some distance below you. But never above you, because I specified friends, not potential friends. This is relevant, because it is predominantly friends, not potential friends, who learn about details of your life. Because of this selection effect, most of the small chances you take run the risk of sending bad news to existing friends more than sending good news to potential friends.
If you think something is going to turn out well, you should be risk averse because there isn’t much to gain sending better news to existing friends, but there is a lot to lose from maybe sending bad news. If you think something is going to go a tiny bit badly, you still want to be risk averse, as long as you are a bit above the thresholds of all your acquaintances. But if you think it’s going to go more badly, a small chance of it not going badly at all might be more valuable than avoiding it going more badly.
This is less clear when things go badly, because the thresholds for each of your friends can be spread out in the space below you, so there might be quite a distance where losing twice as much loses you twice as many friends. But it is less clear that people are generally risk seeking in losses. They do buy insurance for instance. It’s also plausible that most of the thresholds are not far below you, if people try to associate with the best people who will have them.
Another feature of the prospect theory value function is that the loss region is steeper than the gain region. That also fits with the present theory, where mostly you just have things to lose.
In sum, people’s broad patterns of risk aversion according to prospect theory seem explicable in terms of thresholds of association with a selection effect.
Can you think of a good way to test that?
A French couple recently told me that they would feel more affiliation for a king that a president or premier. Asking around I found that many others feel similarly. Which is curious because you might expect people to feel more affiliated with leaders they can choose.
But then if you think about it, people tend to feel more affiliated with family relative to friends. This might be due to people being more intrinsically similar to family, but then again it might not. Westerners find it hard to believe that couples in arranged marriages often feel very attached and intimate, but people from cultures with arranged marriages consistently report this.
You might think that when an employee gets tied more to a job, so that it gets harder to leave, he or she might resent this dependence. But this doesn’t seem to happen often. You might think we’d similarly resent friends that we’ve come to depend on, but in fact I think we like such friends more. And of course most folks feel attached to their parents, even though we couldn’t choose parents and were very dependent on them for a long time.
While we might resent depending on others, we may be comforted to know others are stuck with us, and so won’t leave us, and this second effect may usually dominate.
Contrary to what many say, I’d guess most people really did love their king, really do love their partners in arranged marriages, and feel comforted by their connection to longtime neighbors, friends, and employers when the relation would be costly to break on both sides. Because we are most stuck with them, we tend to love family most of all.
So, does this effect tend to make slaves love their masters? How much does that reduce welfare losses from slavery?
Added 1p: We like presidents more when they oversee more war deaths:
A strong predictor of [perceived American presidential] greatness is the fraction of American lives lost in war during a president’s tenure. (more)
I recently read Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How To Win Friends and Influence People. I had long heard of it, and long had a vaguely negative impression. I think I presumed the book was to help insincere salespeople and glad-handlers manipulate folks. Since I was sincere, it didn’t apply to me.
Reading the book itself, however, I find that it is well-written, and quite valid, general, and sincere. It gives sound advice on how to actually make people really like you. Furthermore I notice: there is little in the book that most people don’t already know. Winning friends is obvious: be nice, pay attention, figure out what they want and get it for them. People are pretty self-centered, so you mostly win them by making them feel important and good about themselves.
I’ll also bet that reading the book actually helps people win more friends, even when they already know it all. Because we usually make up comforting excuses about why people don’t like us. Others feel jealous of us, are rivals to us for something, have been biased by slander from rivals, etc. And it is comforting to assume that folks who succeed must be insincere manipulators. Reading the book reminds us that winning friends is straightforward, but takes a lot of work, work that we just don’t usually put in.
One story in the book was about a US president who won over someone by spending lots of time on them, in part by making the Federal Reserve Board wait an extra thirty minutes. Which makes clear that there is a budget constraint: you can’t lavish all that attention on everyone.
The book gives lots of examples of folks who succeeded by using his principles to make particular others like them. But a bigger key to their success, I suspect, is knowing who exactly to woo when. Invest a lot in winning the wrong friends and you won’t have much to show for it. And since part of what people want from friends is status, if you don’t have enough to offer, you might just be out of luck.