The preference for low quality in Italian academia

by on September 12, 2010 at 7:34 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

There is a relatively new paper by Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi, here is the abstract:

We investigate a phenomenon which we have experienced as common when dealing with an assortment of Italian public and private institutions: people promise to exchange high quality goods and services (H), but then something goes wrong and the quality delivered is lower than promised (L). While this is perceived as ‘cheating’ by outsiders, insiders seem not only to adapt but to rely on this outcome. They do not resent low quality exchanges, in fact they seem to resent high quality ones, and are inclined to ostracise and avoid dealing with agents who deliver high quality. This equilibrium violates the standard preference ranking associated to the prisoner’s dilemma and similar games, whereby self-interested rational agents prefer to dish out low quality in exchange for high quality. While equally ‘lazy’, agents in our L-worlds are nonetheless oddly ‘pro-social’: to the advantage of maximizing their raw self-interest, they prefer to receive low quality provided that they too can in exchange deliver low quality without embarrassment. They develop a set of oblique social norms to sustain their preferred equilibrium when threatened by intrusions of high quality. We argue that cooperation is not always for the better: high quality collective outcomes are not only endangered by self-interested individual defectors, but by ‘cartels’ of mutually satisfied mediocrities.

It is common practice, for instance, that high quality providers are not trusted because they are not signaling the appropriate kind of loyalty.  Might this model also apply outside of Italian academia?

Hat tip goes to Seth Roberts.

1 A. September 12, 2010 at 9:06 am

I think I’ve seen this before, as a (partial) explanation for the “acting white” phenomenon.

2 Erik Brynjolfsson September 12, 2010 at 11:00 am

From the abstract: “they prefer to receive low quality provided that they too can in exchange deliver low quality without embarrassment”

This implies that the total surplus from L/L (net of production costs) is greater than the surplus from H/H. Just because quality is “high”, it doesn’t mean it creates more net value, after subtracting out the costs of production. It is possible for quality to be too high, just as it can be too low — 6 sigma manufacturing quality might be worthwhile, but 20 sigma probably isn’t. I haven’t read the paper yet, but it’s not clear to me that cooperation on L/L “is not … for the better” in this particular case.

3 Barkley Rosser September 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Despite this sort of story and related slams, there is some very interesting work being done in a number of Italian economics departments. They are among the world’s leaders now in such areas as complexity and econophysics.

4 Baphomet September 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm

The latest news is that Diego Gambetta has mysteriously disappeared.

5 bel September 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Yes, you posted about it time ago. Oreos in afroamerican communities.
If someone is better the rest look worst. That why good students are hated in any school around the world.
mediocrity compact? it could be worst, i know very bad professors that still dare to give bad grades. It s common but not openly

6 Bob Knaus September 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Jeez, bel, lighten up. A guy who publishes research on the Mafia ought to expect jokes of that nature… and a guy who publishes a book with a cover like this would probably find it funny:
http://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/Users/Gambetta/books/mafiasycylijska.jpg

7 Someone from the other side September 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm

A Skoda is basically a VW made in Eastern Europe. And with slightly worse design but at 40% off, it might still be worth it.

8 hix September 13, 2010 at 3:51 am

Interesting no matter if left or right American, everyone unquestioned believes that one paper about Italian academia that fits ethnical stereotypes about Italy tells the truth.

9 techreseller September 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm

The sort of compact, like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, only works in a closed system. As soon as someone goes outside the system (outside Italy for example), the compact falls apart. In the short run, those who deliver low quality win. In the long run, the system itself gets displaced by higher quality outsiders.

Sort of like when the Japanese banned Western weapons. That worked until Commodore Perry steamed into the harbor with fully loaded warships.

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