May 5, 2008

Participation as a Prisoners Dilemma

Though this article (hopefully) starts to loose its relevance as time passes here it is:

The Prisoners Dilemma is probably one of the most influential (political) economic concept. Not only is it quickly understood, but also is it applicable to so many circumstances (See for example a nice article by Pierre-Louis on his and Salvatore's blog). I want to offer another application of this concept in the hope to stimulate the desired outcome (what else should theory serve?).

To start, let me tell you that – whether you believe it or not – before I came to HEI, I used to belong to the group of students that sit in the classroom (and listen concentrated) and neither ask questions nor make comments. Part of the reason that motivated this behaviour related to the fact that I just did not have too many questions regarding the material. On the other hand, I also did not see too much of a reason to raise any (critical) comment. The latter derived to some extent from the following line of reasoning: If the comment turns out to be wrong or even worse silly I make a bad figure. If it turns out to be right, well, my initial guess is affirmed but I did not really learn something new, since it was me at the first place coming up with the idea.

Now you might ask where is the Prisoners Dilemma here? Well very simple, if my payoff of saying something wrong is negative, the payoff of saying something right is only marginally positive and - since I am not a genius - I say 50% of the times something wrong, it will be better for me to be quiet. However, I generally benefit from others saying something smart since it makes me learn or see things from a different angle. Even if others say something wrong I might still gain since I might have thought the same thing, but now I learned I was wrong without making a bad impression. Hence, if others say something I will gain on average. So everyone’s dominant strategy is to be quiet, but it might well be that it is socially optimal that we all rather give our comments. This is even more the case when the group is big and/or we tend to say more often something right.

The same logic applies to this blog. Even if our articles or comments are from time to time not ingenious and we make ourselves subject to critique the fact that at other times they will be entertaining, interesting, stimulating or even enlightening makes it worthwhile to be wrong at some occasions.

So if I did a reasonable job and you believe my argument you might say: “Why is it then that some people write on this blog while others do not? And why is it that often the same people ask questions in class while others are mute?” Again there is a simple explanation at hand. No, I do not mean that it is the case that those making comments or those writing articles are so convinced about themselves that they think they are always write and hence benefit always from speaking/writing. It is rather the case that those that speak/write have a lower personal cost of saying something wrong (or the others have a lower gain from saying something right).

You might still say “so what”? In the end, I just gave you a perfectly rational reason why not to write here. Well, unfortunately that is how it is with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Without changing the incentive structure only coordination can lead to the socially optimal outcome. Now guess what I have been trying to do here in the last three minutes!

1 comment:

Dany said...

cool idea. I think that this explain why usually people do not comment in VOX (Baldwin's webpage). Since you can not comment with pseudonymous but real names and affiliation, the cost to say something silly is big, but the cost to shut up nil….. I hope that in our blog this is not happening, since we all should be interested in create some rigotean social capital.