Praise Results

I am deeply honored by Tyler Cowen’s blog post “In praise of Robin Hanson.” My first instinct is to respond in kind, but doing so now would seem forced; better to wait until no one expects it.  Instead let me use this opportunity to make a point about signaling: the world would be better if we praised folks more for what they did than who they are.

Most eulogies, introductions, reviews, etc., whether in praise or criticism, tend to discuss what a person has done mainly as clues to what sort of person they are.  For example, music reviews talk about what a new album says about how the musician has developed, instead of how that music can brighten the lives of listeners.

Very small acts are often mentioned, if they seem telling.  And we often hear that someone was head of an organization, or had a credential, without hearing much about what they did with such influence.  We often hear they were part of some project without hearing the difference they made, and the differences we do hear about are often merely due to others knowing of their association with the project.

Because the usual focus is on inferring how smart, strong, creative, caring, charismatic, determined, etc. people are, the incentives are more to do things that suggest good things about your character.  If instead we focused on describing the differences a person has actually made to the world, we would get more folks trying harder to actually make a difference.  And they would focus more on acquiring the features that produce results, instead of features that are easy to see.

And when we evaluate the difference someone made, we should correct for the opportunities they had.  For example, if they saved lives as a doctor, we should ask if they saved more than if someone else had been allowed to be a doctor in their place.  If they rose from rags to riches, we should ask who helped them along the way.  If they headed an group that did a great thing, we should wonder whether that group would have done something similar with someone else in charge.

If we praised results instead of character, maybe we will get more of both.

Added 7p: Will Wilkinson comments here.

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