Popularity inequality and multiple equilibria

Suppose losing a friend is more costly for a person with few contacts than with many. Then a person with many friends has a lower cost of treating people badly, e.g. acting as if friends are dispensable and interchangeable. The lower cost means that unpleasant acts can signal popularity. Suppose that people value connections with popular others more than unpopular. This creates a benefit from costly, thus credible, signalling of popularity – such signals attract new acquaintances. Having a larger network in turn reduces the cost of signalling popularity by treating friends badly.

Suppose people on average value a popular friend more than the disutility from being treated badly by that person (so the bad treatment is not too bad, more of a minor annoyance). Then a feedback loop arises where bad treatment of others attracts more connections than it loses. The popular get even more popular, reducing their cost of signalling popularity, which allows attracting more connections. Those with few contacts do not want to imitate the stars of the network by also acting unpleasantly, because their expected cost is larger. For example, there is uncertainty about the disutility a friend gets from being treated badly or about how much the friend values the connection, so treating her or him badly destroys the friendship with positive probability. An unpopular person suffers a large cost from losing even one friend.

Under the assumptions above, a popular person can rely on the Law of Large Numbers to increase her or his popularity in expectation by treating others badly. A person with few friends does not want to take the risk of losing even them if they turn out to be sensitive to nastiness.

Multiple equilibria may exist in the whole society: one in which everyone has many contacts and is nasty to them and one in which people have few friends and act nice. Under the assumption that people value a popular friend more than the disutility from being treated badly, the equilibrium with many contacts and bad behaviour actually gives greater utility to everyone. This counterintuitive conclusion can be changed by assuming that popularity is relative, not a function of the absolute number of friends. Total relative popularity is constant in the population, in which case the bad treatment equilibrium is worse by the disutility of bad treatment.

In order for there to be something to signal, it cannot be common knowledge that everyone is equally popular. Signalling with reasonable beliefs requires unequal popularity. Inequality reduces welfare if people are risk averse (in this case over their popularity). Risk aversion further reduces average utility in the popular-and-nasty equilibrium compared to the pooling equilibrium where everyone has few friends and does not signal (acts nice).

In general, if one of the benefits of signalling is a reduction in the cost of signalling, then the amount of signalling and inequality increases. My paper “Dynamic noisy signaling” (2018) studies this in the context of education signalling in Section V.B “Human capital accumulation”.

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