How status seeking leads to bad decision-making

27 October 2019

7:30 PM

27 October 2019

7:30 PM

Whenever I use the security lane at an airport, I enjoy watching people retrieving their bags and metallic items when they emerge from the X-ray machine. You can quickly divide the population into two: a small minority of ‘logistically aware’ systems-thinkers and the logistically challenged majority.

To anyone with a grasp of systems thinking, it is obvious that the throughput of a security line is reduced when only a few people can retrieve their belongings at once. People who self-importantly collect their stuff as soon as it exits the scanner are slowing the queue by 70 per cent or more. The answer is first to remove empty trays from the end of the belt, pushing any full trays as far as they can travel; this leaves far more full trays in reach of their owners at any one time, freeing many people to retrieve their laptops, car keys and coins simultaneously.

Interestingly the people who grasp this are not the people you might expect. It’s never the educated middle-class holidaymaker, but a scaffolder called Dave on his way to Magaluf. It’s one of those areas where intellectual and social standing are inversely correlated with quality of judgment.

Indian restaurant recommendations are like this. Whenever I have tried an Indian eatery on the advice of a knight of the realm or a Nobel laureate, I get served crap Frenchified muck. When a plumber or a builder recommends a curry house, however, it’s always bang on the money.

In recommending a restaurant, the eminent are more interested in displaying sophistication and discernment than in relaying useful information. It is this signalling instinct that led to the culture wars. A noisy minority has co-opted the focus of political debate from discussing how problems can best be solved, to demonstrating how much you care about those problems.

This is self-defeating. Most complex problems are usually solved obliquely with some cunning, small, often counter-intuitive interventions using some form of systems thinking. But those primarily motivated by status-seeking prefer to signal their commitment by demanding interventions that are direct, expensive and visible — with a strong preference for any actions which most annoy other white people whose status is one notch below their own.

Take university admissions. If you want more diversity at elite universities, the answer is not to send your admissions staff on a training course on bias or remove statues of Cecil Rhodes. You first need to widen the pool of people who apply in the first place. This can most easily be achieved by two simple actions: 1) allowing people to choose where to apply after they receive their A-levels results, not before and 2) identifying successful pupils from disadvantaged schools and writing to them encouraging them to apply. (This means that even if their application fails, they cannot be accused of aiming too high by a peer group.)

The present system, where you apply before knowing your results, is hugely biased towards the over–optimistic and the over-ambitious. Most people, especially those from backgrounds where expectations are lower to begin with, are wired to minimise the risk of regret. They would prefer to attempt X and achieve X than to aim for Y and settle for X. This is not a hard problem to solve. The problem is that solutions involving systems-thinking do not have the same signalling value as, say, proposing a cap on private school admissions.

The same applies to proposing actions to combat climate change. The people who claim to care about the problem most are those least likely to solve it. The more widely acceptable a proposal may be, the less signalling value is to be gained from promoting it.

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