Tag Archives: social norm

Identifying useful work in large organisations by revealed preference

Some members of large organisations seemingly do work, but actually contribute negatively by wasting other people’s time. For example, by sending mass emails, adding regulations, changing things for the sake of changing them (and to pad their CV with „completed projects”) or blocking change with endless committees, consultations and discussions with stakeholders. Even if there is a small benefit from this pretend-work, it is outweighed by the cost to the organisation from the wasted hours of other members. It is difficult to distinguish such negative-value-added activity from positive contributions (being proactive and entrepreneurial, leading by example). Opinions differ on what initiatives are good or bad and how much communication or discussion is enough.
Asking others to rate the work of a person would be informative if the feedback was honest, but usually people do not want to officially criticise colleagues and are not motivated to respond thoughtfully to surveys. Selection bias is also a problem, as online ratings show – the people motivated enough to rate a product, service or person are more likely to have extreme opinions.
Modern technology offers a way to study the revealed preferences of all members of the organisation without taking any of their time. If most email recipients block a given sender, move her or his emails to junk or spend very little time reading (keeping the email open), then this suggests the emails are not particularly useful. Aggregate email activity can be tracked without violating privacy if no human sees information about any particular individual’s email filtering or junking, only about the total number of people ignoring a given sender.
Making meetings, consultations and discussions optional and providing an excuse not to attend (e.g. two voluntary meetings at the same time) similarly allows members of the organisation „vote with their feet” about which meeting they find (more) useful. This provides an honest signal, unlike politeness-constrained and time-consuming feedback.
Anonymity of surveys helps mitigate the reluctance to officially criticise colleagues, but people may not believe that anonymity will be preserved. Even with trust in the feedback mechanism, the time cost of responding may preclude serious and thoughtful answers.

Compatibility with colleagues is like interoperability

Interacting with colleagues is like compatibility of programs, tools or machine parts – an individually very good component may be useless if it does not fit with the rest of the machine. A potentially very productive worker who does not work with others in the company does not contribute much.

The difference between an individual and a firm may be horizontal (different cultures, all similarly good) or vertical (bad vs good quality or productivity). The horizontal compatibility with colleagues includes personal appearance – wearing a shirt with a left-wing slogan may be fine in a left-wing company, but offend people in a right-wing one, and vice versa. When colleagues take offence, the strong emotions distract them from work, so a slogan on a shirt may reduce their productivity.

Vertical fitting in includes personal hygiene, because bad breath or body odour distracts others from work. Similarly, loud phone conversations or other noise are disruptive everywhere.

Recording speaking time to prevent meetings from running over

To prevent meetings from running over because some people like to listen to their own voice, one way is to publish how much of others’ time each participant took. Measuring the talking time and making the results public helps participants with low self-awareness realise how long they talked, and creates social disapproval of those who go on for too long, potentially motivating them to be more concise.

A related method to prevent time overruns using current meeting rules, e.g. Robert’s Rules, is to allocate each speaker a fixed amount of time in advance. The problem with this method is the lax enforcement both during and after the meeting. If a speaker goes over and does not respond to requests to stop, then the moderator or chairperson usually does not shut the speaker up (turn off the microphone, forcefully remove the waffler from the stage, clamp a hand over their mouth). After the meeting, the possible sanctions (e.g. not inviting the speaker to future meetings, monetary fine, opposing the speaker’s proposed policy) are also infrequent or weak. Of course this enforcement problem also arises when talk time is recorded and published. However, the clear measurement removes one excuse of the speakers going over, namely their flat denial that they took more time than allocated, or more than others.

Public time-recording is especially helpful in less formal meetings that have no moderator or chairperson keeping time and notifying speakers to stop, and in meetings where a speaker is powerful enough that other participants are reluctant to interrupt with reminders of the time limit. A timekeeper is not needed to record the duration of a speech nowadays, because smartphones can identify a person based on their voice and calculate the time for which each voice spoke. There is a business opportunity in developing an app that identifies the number and timing of the speakers. The resulting data could also be used for research into social dynamics, e.g. whether some age, gender or race groups speak less, whether people in positions of power talk and interrupt more.

A smartphone app can also play a notification sound when a speaker’s time is up, eliminating the problem that the less powerful participants do not remind an important speaker to stop. In large meetings with a microphone, a computer keeping track of speech durations can force a speaker to stop by cutting power to the microphone when the time is up. A computer may be attached to other means to stop a speaker from unreasonably taking others’ time, e.g. it may draw the stage curtain, turn off the stage lights or start noise-cancelling the speech.

Formal clothing is a bad equilibrium of a coordination game

What clothing happens to be considered formal is an equilibrium of a coordination game: if most others think that a given clothing item is formal, then a person who wants to be seen as formally dressed is better off choosing that garment. If enough people who aim to dress formally choose certain clothing items, then those garments will be interpreted as formal. Different cultures and eras have considered different clothes formal, e.g. tights for men were formal in Europe during Napoleonic times, but are not now.

Current formal clothing is a bad equilibrium because suits and shirts are difficult to clean, labour-intensive to iron or press, and restrict movement. A better equilibrium would be to interpret as formal some garments that are comfortable, environmentally friendly, easy to care for and cheap. It is unfortunately difficult to change equilibria in a society-wide coordination game, because a majority of people would have to change their beliefs in a short time.

The reason why suits are seen as formal is historical: these were fashionable at the height of the British Empire, which was the richest and the most powerful country in the 19th century, thus a trendsetter in the first era of globalisation. British fashion was copied in North America and Europe, spreading to the colonies from there. Labour-intensive clothes were a way for Victorian nobility to signal wealth, because only the rich could afford to hire enough servants to make and care for their clothes. In many cultures, wearing impractical clothes (toga, long dress restricting leg movemen) has been a way to signal that one does not have to work. Similar signals of leisure were pale skin (because most work was outdoors), soft clean hands (because most work was manual and dirty), straight posture (because work often involved stooping). More extreme signals of leisure were physical changes that made most jobs of that era and region difficult or impossible: women’s foot-binding in East Asia, mandarins’ long fingernails in China.

Contrary to pale skin demonstrating leisure in Victorian Britain, in modern developed countries, a suntan is a signal of wealth, because most work is indoors and most trips to tropical places or simply outdoors are costly and time-consuming vacations. A similar reversal of the meaning of a signal is that a fat belly showed wealth when food was scarce, but in modern developed countries with an obesity epidemic, developing an athletic physique takes time and effort, so being fat is statistical evidence of poverty.

Signals of wealth have always invited cheaper imitations. For example, solariums provide suntanning cheaper than travel to the tropics. Slimness can be faked with liposuction, a corset or less drastically with a tailored waist and vertical stripes that are closer together or narrower at the waist area. The appearance of broad shoulders is achievable by wearing a suit jacket with padded shoulders.

One reason for why a business suit looks the way it does is to make the man wearing it appear taller, slimmer in the waist, and broader-shouldered, thus more masculine and attractive. The V-shape formed by the lapels uses the well-known visual perception error that an object at the open end of a V looks larger than an identical object at the tip of the V. The front of a suit jacket thus creates the appearance of a slim-bellied, muscular man. If the wearer’s belly allows, then a suit jacket usually also has a tailored waist, which further visually narrows the middle of the body. The vertical lines created by the tie and the creases of the pants make the wearer look taller and slimmer, which is often accentuated by vertical stripes on the suit. It is very rare to see a suit with horizontal stripes.

The visual illusion of attractiveness that a suit creates provides a extra incentive to stay in the equilibrium in which suits are considered formal clothing. To ease the transition to a new equilibrium in which the clothes perceived as formal are more practical, the new formal clothes should improve the wearer’s looks even more than a suit. This is not difficult, because many garments may have V-shaped patterns printed on the upper body, vertical stripes on the lower, have a tailored waist and shoulder pads. The patterns and cut may be designed based on psychology research to maximise the athletic appearance of the wearer. Anything achieved with a suit may be replicated and further optical enhancements added, for example printed outlines of muscles and puffed upper sleeves.

Not all cultures are equally good

Some people claim that all cultures are worth preserving, sometimes even that all cultures are equally good. I disagree. For example, I consider the cultures of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany much worse than the current European ones, and definitely not worth preserving. Culture is a matter of taste, so there is no objective proof that one is worse than another, but various criteria may be defined and used to rank cultures. An example criterion is the (growth of the) Human Development Index of the people following a culture. Different people will emphasise different criteria, and may rank cultures in opposite ways using the same criterion, e.g. some like and some dislike tolerance of sexual orientations that are statistically in the minority.
Similarly, even if a culture is worth preserving, then not all aspects of it necessarily are. Cultures are a mix of good and bad elements. For example, primitive cultures may have great knowledge of local wildlife and weather, but also female genital mutilation, widow strangling, headhunting, cannibalism. A culture may include beautiful art, but also fundamentalist religion that oppresses women and minorities.

Vacation is a break from the routine

Marketing tries to create the perception that vacation consists of consuming goods and services. In my experience, some of the most interesting vacation activities are those that constitute work for some other people. In other words, production, not consumption, is restful. For example, I find fixing bicycles interesting, because the problems encountered are quite different from each other. If the fixes only consisted of patching flat tires, then that would get boring quickly. Similarly, if I had to fix bikes all day long, it would be onerous. But as an occasional break from my usual work (sitting behind a computer), bike repair is interesting and actually restful. Another example is planting trees and removing invasive plants from a woodland – this would get boring and tiring after half a day, but 2-3 hours every few months provides variety. Growing vegetables and fruit is a productive activity that many people do for fun in their garden. Cooking for others is also productive and often done for fun.
I would pay to operate a tractor, an excavator or a crane for a few hours, because I think it would be very interesting. Unfortunately, safety regulations probably forbid an amateur from operating heavy machinery. For the same reason, I cannot drive a truck or weld a ship for fun. Neither can I be an assistant at surgery, handing tools to surgeons, because the job requires training and probably some kind of licence. If it didn’t, I would be interested in observing a surgery first hand. Underground mining would also be interesting to try.
Some work is legal for (mostly) untrained people to undertake, but requires a long-term commitment, for example being a deckhand on a commercial fishing ship. After the first day, the work would get boring, so would not constitute vacation any more. The same may happen after a few days as a field research assistant of biologists, archaeologists or anthropologists in remote areas. The remote area may have its own discomforts and dangers, which are mostly not adrenaline-rich experiences that extreme sports fans would pay for. An example of a boring danger is catching a disease, getting heatstroke or frostbite.
A person who does the abovementioned activities for work would not find them restful. But quite possibly, such a person would find parts of my work fun and would be willing to do them briefly during vacation, for example drawing graphs on a computer or solving a math puzzle.
In summary, a vacation is a break from the routine. Because people’s routines differ, one person’s usual work is another’s interesting vacation activity.

Defence against bullying

Humans are social animals. For evolutionary reasons, they feel bad when their social group excludes, bullies or opposes them. Physical bullying and theft or vandalism of possessions have real consequences and cannot be countered purely in the mind. However, the real consequences are usually provable to the authorities, which makes it easier to punish the bullies and demand compensation. Psychological reasons may prevent the victim from asking the authorities to help. Verbal bullying has an effect only via psychology, because vibrations of air from the larynx or written symbols cannot hurt a human physically.

One psychological defense is diversification of group memberships. The goal is to prevent exclusion from most of one’s social network. If a person belongs to only one group in society, then losing the support of its members feels very significant. Being part of many circles means that exclusion from one group can be immediately compensated by spending more time in others.

Bullies instinctively understand that their victims can strengthen themselves by diversifying their connections, so bullies try to cut a victim’s other social ties. The beaters of family members forbid their family from having other friends or going to social events. School bullies mock a victim’s friends to drive them away and weaken the victim’s connection to them. Dictators create paranoia against foreigners, accusing them of spying and sabotage.

When a person has already been excluded from most of their social network, joining new groups or lobbying for readmission to old ones may be hard. People prefer to interact with those who display positive emotions. The negative emotions caused by a feeling of abandonment make it difficult to present a happy and fun image to others. Also, if the „admission committee” knows that a candidate to join their group has no other options, then they are likely to be more demanding, in terms of requiring favours or conformity to the group norms. Bargaining power depends on what each side gets when the negotiations break down – the better the outside option, the stronger the bargaining position. It is thus helpful to prepare for potential future exclusion in advance by joining many groups. Diversifying one’s memberships before the alternative groups become necessary is insurance. One should keep one’s options open, which argues for living in a bigger city, exploring different cultures both online and the real world, and not burning bridges with people who at some point excluded or otherwise acted against one.

There may be a case for forgiving bullies if they take enough nice actions to compensate. Apologetic words alone do not cancel actions, as discussed elsewhere (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=556). Forgiving does not mean forgetting, because past behaviour is informative about future actions, and social interactions are a dynamic game. The entire sharing economy (carsharing, home-renting) is made possible by having people’s reputations follow them even if they try to escape the consequences of their past deeds. The difficulty of evading consequences motivates better behaviour. The same holds in social interactions. In the long run, it is better for everyone, except perhaps the worst people, if past deeds are rewarded or punished as they deserve. If bullying is not punished, then the perpetrators learn this and intensify their oppression in the future.

Of course, the bullies may try to punish those who reported them to the authorities. The threat to retaliate against whistleblowers shows fear of punishment, because people who do not care about the consequences would not bother threatening. The whistleblower can in turn threaten the bullies with reporting to the authorities if the bullies punish the original whistleblowing. The bullies can threaten to punish this second report, and the whistleblower threaten to punish the bullies’ second retaliation, etc. The bullying and reporting is a repeated interaction and has multiple equilibria. One equilibrium is that the bullies rule, therefore nobody dares to report them, and due to not being reported, they continue to rule. Another equilibrium is that any bullying is swiftly reported and punished, so the bullies do not even dare to start the bullying-reporting-retaliation cycle. The bullies rationally try to push the interaction towards the equilibrium where they rule. Victims and goodhearted bystanders should realise this and work towards the other equilibrium by immediately reporting any bullying against anyone, not just oneself.

To prevent insults from creating negative emotions, one should remember that the opinion of only a few other people at one point in time contains little information. Feedback is useful for improving oneself, and insults are a kind of feedback, but a more accurate measure of one’s capabilities is usually available. This takes the form of numerical performance indicators at work, studies, sports and various other tests in life. If people’s opinions are taken as feedback, then one should endeavour to survey a statistically meaningful sample of these opinions. The sample should be large and representative of society – the people surveyed should belong to many different groups.

If some people repeatedly insult one, then one should remember that the meaning of sounds or symbols that people produce (called language) is a social norm. If the society agrees on a different meaning for a given sound, then that sound starts to mean what the people agreed. Meaning is endogenous – it depends on how people choose to use language. On an individual level, if a person consistently mispronounces a word, then others learn what that unusual sound from that person means. Small groups can form their own slang, using words to denote meanings differently from the rest of society. Applying this insight to bullying, if others frequently use an insulting word to refer to a person, then that word starts to mean that person, not the negative thing that it originally meant. So one should not interpret an insulting word in a way that makes one feel bad. The actual meaning is neutral, just the „name” of a particular individual in the subgroup of bullies. Of course, in future interactions one should not forget the insulters’ attempt to make one feel bad.

To learn the real meaning of a word, as used by a specific person, one should Bayes update based on the connection of that person’s words and actions. This also helps in understanding politics. If transfers from the rich to the poor are called „help to the needy” by one party and „welfare” by another, then these phrases by the respective parties should be interpreted as „transfers from the rich to the poor”. If a politician frequently says the opposite of the truth, then his or her statements should be flipped (negation inserted) to derive their real meaning. Bayesian updating also explains why verbal apologies are usually nothing compared to actions.

Practicing acting in a drama club helps to understand that words often do not have content. Their effect is just in people’s minds. Mock confrontations in a play will train a person to handle real disputes.

Learning takes time and practice, including learning how to defend against bullying and ignore insults. Successfully resisting will train one to resist better. Dealing with adversity is sometimes called „building character”. To deliberately train oneself to ignore insults, one may organise an insult competition – if the insulted person reacts emotionally, then the insulter wins, otherwise the insulter loses. As with any training and competition, the difficulty level should be adjusted for ability and experience.

The current trend towards protecting children from even verbal bullying, and preventing undergraduate students from hearing statements that may distress them could backfire. If they are not trained to resist bullying and experience it at some point in their life, which seems likely, then they may be depressed for a long time or overreact to trivial insults. The analogy is living in an environment with too few microbes, which does not build immunity and causes allergy. „Safe spaces” and using only mild words are like disinfecting everything.

The bullies themselves are human, thus social animals, and feel negative emotions when excluded or ignored. If there are many victims and few bullies, then the victims should band together and exclude the bullies in turn. One force preventing this is that the victims see the bullies as the „cool kids” (attractive, rich, strong) and want their approval. The victims see other victims as „losers” or „outsiders” and help victimise them, and the other victims respond in kind. The outsiders do not understand that what counts as „cool” is often a social norm. If the majority thinks behaviour, clothing or slang A cool, then A is cool, but if the majority agrees on B, then B is preferred. The outsiders face a coordination game: if they could agree on a new social norm, then their number being larger than the number of insiders would spread the new norm. The outsiders would become the „cool kids” themselves, and the previously cool insiders would become the excluded outsiders.

Finding new friends helps increase the number who spread one’s preferred norms, as well as insuring against future exclusion by any subset of one’s acquaintances.

If there are many people to choose from when forming new connections, then the links should be chosen strategically. People imitate their peers, so choosing those with good habits as one’s friends helps one acquire these habits oneself. Having friends who exercise, study and have a good work ethic increases one’s future fitness, education and professional success. Criminal, smoking, racist friends nudge one towards similar behaviours and values. Choosing friends is thus a game with one’s future self. The goal is to direct the future self to a path preferred by the current self. The future self in turn directs its future selves. It takes time and effort to replace one’s friends, so there is a switching cost in one’s social network choice. A bad decision in the past may have an impact for a long time.

It may be difficult to determine who is a good person and who is not. Forming a social connection and subtly testing a person may be the only way to find out their true face. For example, telling them a fake secret and asking them not to tell anyone, then observing whether the information leaks. One should watch how one’s friends behave towards others, not just oneself. There is a tradeoff between learning about more people and interacting with only good people. The more connections one forms, the greater the likelihood that some are with bad people, but the more one learns. This is strategic experimentation in a dynamic environment.

Organ trade restrictions

Trade in human body parts is mostly forbidden, although donations without compensation or for “coverage of reasonable costs” are allowed. One reason is that trade creates the incentive for criminals to harvest organs against people’s will. In the worst case, a young and healthy person is killed to get all their marketable body parts. Another problem is that stupid people may sell their organs voluntarily and later regret it.

The dangers differ depending on how damaging the removal of the organ is. Trade in hearts encourages killing more than trade in donor blood, although even for blood a victim can be drained completely if the price is high enough. For criminals, the complexity of organ removal and how fast it needs to be delivered to the recipient also matter. It would make sense for the restrictions and punishments to correspond to the danger of organ robbery and the associated damage.

The one tissue type currently transferred between people for which organ robbery and overdonation seem nonissues is sperm. Forcing someone to donate against their will is possible, but causes no permanent damage (in my medically ignorant opinion). Too frequent donations lower the quality (number of cells per unit of volume) in a detectable way, which would make most robbed sperm unmarketable. Yet payment for donor sperm is still forbidden in Australia (Human Tissue Act 1982) and many other countries. This may be a knee-jerk extension of the laws against trade in human organs, or there may be some reason I have missed.

On accepting apologies

There seems to be a social convention that an apology has to be accepted and that someone who does not is unfriendly and a bad person. This seems strange to me, because an apology often tries to undo deeds with words, or cancel unthinking words with considered ones.

The willingness of most people to trade words for deeds seems irrational to me – there is a qualitative difference between words and deeds, in that words can be neutralized within the hearer’s mind. If the hearer or reader does not understand, hear or attach emotional significance to words, then these have no effect. Deeds, on the other hand, have consequences that are not just in people’s heads. A punch causes bruising even if imagined to be a caress. An insult does not cause bad feelings if it is interpreted as a joke by all concerned.

Accepting words in compensation for deeds makes one manipulable. The perpetrator of bad actions can get away with them repeatedly by promising each time to change and to sin no more (Hitler’s “last territorial demand”). The social convention that words have to be accepted as compensation helps the unscrupulous. If instead good works in sufficient quantity were required to make up for misdeeds, then taking advantage of others would be less profitable. Some people would have to spend a lifetime undoing their crimes, which creates the incentive problem of how to make criminals work. Perhaps gradually easing ostracism and restrictions as the debt is worked off. The quantity of good actions required must be large enough to make the overall profit from a bad deed negative.

Cancelling unthinking words with a considered apology benefits impulsive liars who initially insult and then talk their way out of the opprobrium by pretending to be sorry. Every time I find in the media that a politician or a white collar criminal says sorry, I interpret it as them being sorry they were caught. If they were sorry about the deed itself, they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

A good person who did something bad by accident would volunteer to make amends. They would not have to be forced to it as punishment. Of course, if volunteering to compensate starts being interpreted favourably enough by society, then selfish and manipulative people would also volunteer. Making amends is a costly signal of good intentions, but if the benefit of signalling is large enough, then even the bad types signal to imitate the good.

Of airline food and a day of service

The purpose of airline food is not to feed people but to show that the airline cares. The small plastic boxes with different food in each are a pretense of a multi-course meal. Multi-course meals are considered fancy. If the goal was to feed people, then a large sandwich or a bowl of pasta would be logistically simpler to provide and eat, cheaper and more filling.
Similarly a day of service (of volunteering) of some organization is not designed to help others but to show that the organization cares. The organization wants to be seen to be helping. If educated employees go and clean the park or work at a soup kitchen, it is a waste of their talents. It would be more productive to do their regular work and donate their salary to hire cheaper labour for the simple volunteering jobs. More volunteering output (cleaner park, food for the homeless) would be produced. Division of labour increases overall productivity, as Adam Smith pointed out.
Volunteering by highly qualified people may make sense if it is a vacation for them – their enjoyment outweighs the productivity loss relative to the efficient arrangement where everyone does their specialized job. A different type of work is a break from routine, which may be restful.
Once I participated in the Yale Day of Service. It was supposed to last from 9:00 to 14:00, so more like a half-day of service. Many people were late, so we started going towards the worksite at about 9:30 and reached it in ten or fifteen minutes. We were supposed to clear the underbrush among some park trees. The tools were dull gardening shears. The work ended at about 12:30. One person with a motorized trimmer could have done in ten minutes what twenty people with shears did in two hours. Clearly the goal was not to clear the park of bushes and weeds, but either a social event or a show of caring. Namewise, Yale Two Hours of Service sounds less nice than a Day.