2017-02-11

When Incapacity is an Advantage

Suppose X and Y are skills, and that Person A has skill X and person B has skill X and skill Y.

If A and B are working together, it makes sense for A to specialize on X and B to specialize on Y. That is how comparative advantage works. However, it's rather unfair to B if Y happens to be a lower prestige activity.

This happens all the time. Someone who is really great at coming up with new ideas gets more renown than someone who is good at explaining those ideas, for instance. You should think of your own examples before proceeding.

(The above insight is 100% stolen from someone else, but since their post isn't public, I summarized it in my own words.)

This dynamic means that if prestige is among your goals, you have an incentive not to learn skill Y, to prevent yourself from being able to learn skill Y, and to invent rationalizations for why skill Y is either useless or something only bad people would want to learn. It's another example of a game-theoretic situation where being less capable is an advantage, which will come as no surprise if you've read Schelling.

Note that you have to be at least somewhat selfish to not want to learn Y in order to gain this sort of advantage. Coalitions are always made better off when their individual members gain new knowledge and skills, even if those individual members are made worse off.

What's really interesting is that people who fail to learn skill Y aren't the only game-theoretic agents. There are other players, and those among them who do have skill Y are able to at least subconsciously notice the costs imposed among them by people who don't. Which means that people who know skill Y will get angry at people who don't and invent rationalizations and harangues and the other usual social moves for getting people to do things, so they don't have to be the only ones.

It seems like a lot of game-theoretic equilibria end up in basically the situation of the brightly-colored poisonous frogs, with a substantial portion of mimic frogs who have no poison at all.

2 comments:

  1. > Coalitions are always made better off when their individual members gain new knowledge and skills, even if those individual members are made worse off.

    Is that true? Why doesn't the same problem just happen at the coalition level? Refusing to learn a skill then becomes a form of price fixing for your coalition.

    This still requires you to fail to be perfectly universally altruistic, but it's closer to being tribal than it is to being selfish - this can happen even when it would be individually advantageous for you to learn the skill (say if your status within the coalition was low compared to the status of people who have the skill in society, even when your coalition is overall higher status).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yeah. didn't seem necessary to mention

      Delete