Looking Too Good

An initial study investigating tolerance of group members who abuse a public good surprisingly showed that unselfish members (those who gave much toward the provision of the good but then used little of the good) were also targets for expulsion from the group. Two follow-up studies replicated this and ruled out explanations grounded in the target being seen as confused or unpredictable. A fourth study suggested that the target is seen by some as establishing an undesirable behavior standard and by others as a rule breaker. Individuals who formed either perception expressed a desire for the unselfish person to be removed from the group. …

The fact that generous people are unpopular is consistent with the well-documented aversion to exceptional individuals: dislike of those who seem extremely competent; displeasure with those who offer help; and, more recently, the rejection of those who adhere strongly to a moral position. …

Within a group task setting, social comparison tends to induce feelings of inter-personal competition. People feel driven to outdo the group member who is setting the standard. In a setting such as ours, the standard being set by the benevolent other is to give up a considerable amount of personal resources and receive only a small payoff in return. To compete with such a person means that one would need to give even more and take even less, not a very desirable prospect. Removal of this person would eliminate that competitive standard. Further, it is known that in social dilemma situations, people ignore the objective nature of their outcomes in favor of a subjective, relative evaluation of them. (more; HT Tyler)

Need any clearer evidence that status has a big relative (or positional) component?  Similar behavior happens in the real world.  Forager band hunters often exchange arrows, to hide who actually killed the animal everyone is eating; claiming credit for a kill is bad form and punished.  The book Managerial Dilemnas describes Hawthorne Works electrical factory workers in the 1930s:

The [official] incentive system was almost completely negated by social norms dictating roughly equal reported output.  The two pieces of equipment per day averaged out to 825 connections an hour by each of the wiremen.  Those who worked above this norm suffered some degree of social ostracism.  They were given nicknames such as “Speed King” and verbally chastised.  They were also likely to be the butt of a game known as “binging,” in which one person hit another as hard as possible on the upper arm, to which the other nominally had the right to respond by hitting back.  If a large number of people chose to play the binging game with the same norm violator, this amounted to a significant negative sanction. …

The four people who met or exceeded this norm were Krupa, Capek, Mueller, and Taylor. … Krupa, Capek, and Mueller were also the three most unpopular men in the room.  Taylor was highly popular, but managed his productivity without violating the norms, .. [as he] consistently reported making fewer connections than he actually did!  Because he underreported his outpout, his productivity could not be regarded as a greedy attenpt to get a larger share of the fixed revenue generated by the two pices of equipment produced per day; instead, his efforts could only be interpreted as a pure contribution to the public good. …

There were other people in the room who produced less than the norm.  They were tolerated with greater equanimity because their nonproductivity was not at such a level that it threatened the prescribed two unit per day goal, … [or as] “greediness.” Instead, they … had slightly less status, but were otherwise members in good standing. …

Members of the group were not allowed to “put on airs” by appearing to be better educated or better dressed than other members.  Such a distinction might presume to indicate that the peson was sufficiently exalted as to justify an unequal contribution to the cooperative work effort.  Indeed, any attempts by group members to seek such a socially distinct status were regarded by other members as almost as dangerous as free riding itself – and were santioned in the same spirit of tit-for-tat. (pp. 189-190)

Many suggest that even without a global agreement, the US should unilaterally tax carbon, as a contribution to the global public good, in order to shame other nations into following our example.  But might not this instead make such nations hate and retaliate against the US all the more?

Added Aug3: More from non-Western cultures:

In about half of these samples [we see] a phenomenon that is not observed beyond a trivial degree among typical undergraduate subjects: Many subjects engaged in anti-social punishment; that is, they paid to reduce the earnings of “overly” cooperative individuals (those who contributed more than the punisher did). The effect of this behavior on levels of cooperation was dramatic, completely compensating for the cooperation-inducing effects of punishment.

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  • Marcus

    Isn’t there a significant difference in your U.S. carbon tax example in that the U.S. is widely seen as the selfish party rather than the generous party? (I’m commenting on the example given, not the underlying point.)

  • Marcus

    (I mean selfish in the sense that they take more than they give, not that they give in order to take more credit, if that was the case then the example would fit perfectly)

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  • William H. Stoddard

    When I was studying Greek, many years ago, we learned the story of Aristides the Just: An Athenian whose fellow citizens nicknamed him “the Just” because of his conspicuous fair-mindedness. At one point in his life he was proposed for ostracism. Being in Athens when the vote was held, he met a man in the marketplace who wanted to vote, but was illiterate. The voter asked him to help him cast his vote for ostracizing Aristides. Aristides asked “How has Aristides wronged you?” and the man explained, “I don’t even know him, but I am so tired of hearing everyone talk about “Aristides the Just” all the time.” And Aristides helped him cast his vote.

  • James D. Miller

    So the “acting white” taunt in which black school students who do exceptionally well at school are mocked by other black students might not represent some unique flaw in black culture but rather is an example of how humans normally behave.

  • bongo

    If skill and generosity doesn’t raise status in your group, what _is_ the pecking order based on, then? Coalitions and social games that are hypocritically hidden? Or is everyone equal?

  • This is probably the mechanism for the anti-intelligentsia bias that many revolutions have.

    If you kill off those at the top of the social hierarchy, then those who are lower down can move up.

  • Doug Winter

    Do nations have psychological responses just like human individuals then? That would be remarkable if it was true.

  • Unnamed

    At Hawthorne Works, the workers seemed to see it as a zero-sum competition between them for a fixed amount of money. Were they right? If so, it sounds like a badly designed incentive scheme (similar to how breeding the hen with the most eggs is a badly designed scheme).

  • KrisC

    I have never understood why the managers in situations such as these do not raise the expected output and replace the least productive. In the situation presented, “binging” would represent cause for termination in modern workplaces.

    In the example it is not specified whether Taylor’s extra output is claimed by less productive workers. If this is the case, his popularity could be accounted for by his gift-giving. If his unclaimed output goes unclaimed, then the tally of work completed would be off, implying a slack or complicit management.

    Depending on the size of the workforce, Krupa, Capek, and Mueller should hold be able to collude to influence production. While they may not be popular among the general population, their contributions show that there are some who value productivity. They may at least derive personal satisfaction from outproducing their slack-jawed fellows.

    The example does not correspond to the question of the carbon tax because their is no central authority in international relations. Additionally, the US packs the biggest punch in a number of arenas. While we do not expect China to reduce pollution, it seems unlikely that they will have cause for concern if the US does.

    Perhaps the Hawthorne Effect would be a better mechanism to apply motivation to polluting nations. Knowing that one is being monitored often leads to the observed improving performance. A rotating schedule of emission audits could cause short terms improvements from the countries studied.

    • lemmy caution

      According to the book “Managerial Dilemmas”, If the workers become more productive, the bosses will just reduce the piece rate making the workers worse off.

      The bosses generally can not credibly signal that they won’t lower the piece rate. The book mentioned one company that was able to signal that the piece rate would remain stable and the workers became very productive and paid more than most of the managers.

      • Oligopsony

        Do you recall how they were able to send that signal? Direct contracts, union representation in managerial decisions…?

      • lemmy caution

        The company was Lincoln Electric. The workers trusted the company due to past behaviour. I can’t find the whole story on it in “managerial dilemmas” from google books or amazon search, but some of the things it did was:

        -no layoffs in recessions
        -high level of worker input on governance
        -big bonus pool

  • Rob

    “The rank-income hypothesis may explain why increasing the incomes of all may not raise the happiness of all… [I]ncome rank may act as a proxy for more general social rank, with the analyses then showing that social rank is key to well-being.”

  • “Many suggest that even without a global agreement, the US should unilaterally tax carbon, as a contribution to the global public good, in order to shame other nations into following our example. But might not this instead make such nations hate and retaliate against the US all the more?”

    The jump here is from microsocial to macrosocial? I’m sympathetic to such jumps, but I think we should make that explicit.

  • Nick Walker

    Expelling members for looking too good kills entrepreneurship. A successful businessman receives status as a member of employer class, but how do you take first mover advantage without attracting scorn?

    • andrew kieran

      being a workaholic isn’t entrepeneurship. it’s about trying to make yourself look good to managment. and it’s the right approach, nobody respects a fawning poodle who jumps whenever he’s told.

      independent businessmen (shopkeepers, small builders, plumbers, etc) work a lot harder because the harder they work, the richer they are. and in my anecdotal and unresearched opinion they’re respected for it.

      employees in large firms exhibit this behaviour because if everyone works harder they gain no benefit. the profit just gets skimmed by those at the top. everyone’s ruining their bodies and souls with frantic labour, but nobody’s any richer.

  • I agree that there is a big jump between personal and national interactions. But the theory that a unilateral tax will shame others into copying is also based on a jump from personal behavior. I’m countering that theory with another such jump.

  • Eric

    In Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex there is an example of workers sanctioning high efficiency outliers on the Ford assembly line.

  • KrisC, look at the link on chicken breeding in the comment by unnamed. That is what they were doing, the people at the bottom of the hierarchy anticipated that, so they were bullying and abusing people at the top. When you select only the highest producing chickens from each hen house, what you select for is mean chickens who sabotage the egg laying capacity of other chickens.

    That is one of the things that caused the downfall of Enron, they used an individual selection criteria where gaming the system was selected for. They didn’t select for the best performers, they selected for those who could game the system the best.

    When you put individuals in desperate situations, they will do desperate things to be successful. If an individual doesn’t have the capacity to be productive and you are selecting for relative productivity, sabotaging the productivity of competitors is always easier than being productive yourself.

  • Ken

    Great post. I wonder if and how this phenomenon works with professional sports teams…

  • An interesting post. I’m astonished at the complacency of the last para in this post. The idea of America ‘shaming’ the rest of the world into anything much is a laugh these days. But on greenhouse! China, with a fraction of the per capita income is doing far more than the US. India too. Who exactly were you planning on shaming? Tonga?

    The richest country in the world is off in fantasy land while the planet begins to cook. This is all for about 1/20th of economic growth for the next few decades. Oh well it happened to the Romans.

  • I detected a possible inconsistency in my beliefs because all of the following things seemed plausible to me:

    1.1) The reported result of this post: People don’t like people who do more than they do and set too high a standard.

    1.2) A lot of philanthropy is about chasing status.

    1.3) People who work hard are doing it to gain status.

    But why work hard and give to charity if this is what you get? Why feel threatened by someone charitable if this is what they get? Do philanthropists have inaccurate beliefs about philanthropy and other tribe members also have inaccurate beliefs about philanthropy, no one’s emotions or plans taking into account the actual fruits of the endeavor? It’s not that I feel there’s an actual problem here, but that a few more details need to be specified in order for the theory not to contradict itself.

    Some possibilities that occur to me:

    2.1) Outperformers can and do gain social status when they manage to outperform in nonthreatening ways, or when they form coalitions that could potentially exclude the sort of people who feel threatened by outperformance.

    2.2) Modern philanthropists do not give a high enough percentage of their income to charity that anyone feels threatened by their moral standard, only impressed by the display. Even so, rich people who give little to philanthropy can be expected to feel displeased with rich people who give more.

    2.3) If Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are expecting their fellow rich folk to like them and be impressed with them for giving away most of their legacy, they are sorely mistaken. On the other hand, the average person who already thinks Gates and Buffett are higher status than them and who does not plan to become rich may like them and be impressed with them because they only imply that the rich should give more of their income, not average people.

    2.4) Some outperformers with no other good reason for outperformance probably are to some extent just mistaken about what to expect.

    2.5) Contrary to what one might initially expect, when you gather groups of highly altruistic and prosocial people, you will find that they are not those most driven to please other tribemembers and conform to tribal norms, but iconoclasts, and, as Michael Vassar is bound to point out, non-iconoclasts who actually believed that crap they were told about what social norms are supposed to be. The latter group will probably end up pretty bitter sooner or later.

    • People may respect you for being typically generous, i.e., as and similarly generous as many other generous people. Then they can accept you into their club, as an equal. If you are unusually generous, giving a larger fraction of your income than most do, they may well resent you for trying to make them look bad. They may retaliate by belittling you on other margins. if you give to unusual causes, and claim that your causes are much more effective than the usual causes, they may also resent you for trying to make them look bad. In this case they can belittle you by saying you are a fool for believing that your cause is that much more effective.

  • andrew kieran

    regarding charity vis-a-vis status.

    there’s a guy whose house me and my boss have been working on for the last few weeks. he’s proper minted, and he’s on the rotary committee. which is sort of a local philanthropic organisation, the members of which are all similarly rich people.

    that’s all good. i don’t have a problem with the rich being rich, fair play to him. what i do have a problem with is a man who spend a great deal of time and energy getting his face in the paper to show everyone what a grand, great, big man he is, but when it comes time to pay the boys he stalls and mutters and moans.

    this could indicate that he’s not concerned with what people of my social class think about him. he can’t imagine any positive impact i could have on him. but he is very concerned with appearing good and great to all the other local worthies, the people of his own social class, that he feels he could benefit from

  • If you want to gain status by helping the poor, if there are no poor to help because someone else has beat you to it, then your quest for status will fail.

    I wonder if that is why so many conservatives hate FDR? By helping the poor to be not so destitute, he has made the “cost” of buying status through philanthropy that much more expensive.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    I think it is much more likely that FDR is disliked for increasing the duration of Great Depression and imprisoning Japanese people, than for “helping the poor”.

    Where could I look for evidence that would verify or falsify your hypothesis?

  • Though I myself am a rabid carnivore, I think this explains some of the animosity vegetarians (and environmentalists/hippies/Jesus-freaks) get.

    James D. Miller, I think the literature on the subect commonly references the “social capital” tradeoff faced by Italian-American youths of the past.

    daedalus2u, don’t revolutions tend to result from disaffected intelligentsia? One common framing (admittedly on the internet, from marginal figures) I’ve heard of the Bolshevik revolution was that it was class warfare of the intelligentsia against the peasantry! Later on revolutions do tend to “eat their own” because those near the top are viewed as possible threats.

    About U.S animosity: the IR theory of “balancing” is that rather than a “bandwagon effect”, nations gang up on those seen as “too big for their britches”. One’s views on this may depend on whether you see 20th century Germany and 19th century France as threats to world peace or upstarts against the Vampire of the Continent.

    daedalus2u, there was no shortage of poor people. Conservatives hate FDR because he was a very popular (four-term) liberal president who permanently changed the small-c constitution of the country. Some of them also respect him for WW2 and wish Democrats would go back to being like him, Truman & Kennedy (not that they’ve been antiwar since McGovern either), but I dissent from that view and dislike him for conniving the country into war.

  • luzhin

    alternative hypothesis:

    those most likely to become the most competent at explicit rule-based and/or procedural tasks are those least likely to internalize and observe the complex web of implicit social norms regulating interpersonal relationships.

    this post displays the same sort of naive reasoning that leads clever Nerds to erroneously conclude that their peers dislike them because they’re good at solving math problems.

    • Jordan

      I like luzhin’s explanation more. Maybe being the type of guy who will let co-workers treat you like dirt also gives you a good work ethic. We need a little more useful prediction before we can put this to rest as actual evidence of anything.