Low Quality Preference

L-worlds: The curious preference for low quality and its norms is a delicious November 2009 Sociology Working Paper by Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi at the University of Oxford. They noticed a curious contradiction between the usual assertions on reciprocal behavior and the empirical situation in their native Italy.

Theoretically, everyone should prefer to receive high quality (H) from others while producing low quality (L) oneself. But such L production would be punished by others, ideally resulting in a cooperative equilibrium where everyone produces H. Instead, Gambetta and Origgi found real-life actors who punished others for providing high quality, preferring to receive low quality instead! Consequently, the socially accepted equilibrium is one of all-around L producers – who keep promising each other H.

H-doers do not seem to receive much admiration, quite the contrary, they elicit suspicion. As an Italian university ‘barone’ once put it, “You don’t understand Diego, when you are good [at your work] you must apologise”.

Underperforming on promises is mutually acceptable and desirable since neither party wants to be forced to deliver high quality:

[T]o the raw payoffs of free-riding we must prefer to avoid the embarrassment of being seen as a free-rider or the discomfort of being made to feel of inferior quality or both – emotions that would be triggered if the other party gave us H while we saddle them with L. By contrast, when both parties tacitly accept a “discount” they are not cheating each other. Rather, they are entering a relation whose advantages for each depend on the reciprocal tolerance of L-ness.

There seems to be a double deal: an official pact in which both declare their intention to exchange H-goods, and a tacit accord whereby discounts are not only allowed but expected. It becomes a form of tacit mutual connivance on L-ness. Thus, if a party delivers H instead of L, the other party feels that this is, paradoxically, a breach of trust, even if he may not acknowledge it openly. In other words, if I deliver H, you resent me because of that. My being trustworthy in this relation means to deliver L too. Contrary to the standard Prisoner Dilemma game, the willingness to repeat an interaction with someone is ensured if he delivers L rather than H.

The paper provides a great many amusing anecdotes for this “inverse meritocratic selection.” One curious aspect is the careful “maintenance of an H-façade” which fools outside observers but also eases the L-doers’ own conscience. The resulting L-cliques sound rather familiar from many situations outside of Italy, too:

The [cognitive dissonance between what one practices and what one preaches] is reduced by interacting always with the same people, whom one can trust for not challenging one’s standards. L-doers segregate themselves in mutual admiration societies.

3 thoughts on “Low Quality Preference

  1. The Balsamean

    The H-facade IS now H itself (in a majority of cases). That puts perceived H on the same playing level as L, just charging a higher price. L-makers don’t mind H’s getting a higher price. They make up in volume what the Junk-H sellers get in price.

    There is real, quantifiable H out there. Just try to find it without making very careful study of Consumer Reports and recall records before buying. Forget about picking the H among politicians, government employees, and local repair services, not rated by CR.

    The Market is masterful at creating perceptions of what constitutes H without having anything to do with measurable H. “Love is what makes a Subaru.” Well, then, it MUST be good. Love would not hurt me.

    Then there’s our emotional or aesthetic perceptions of H and L. My neighbor has a presumed perfect, “H” lawn, thanks to massive investments in deadly chemicals and labor. I have a perceived (by others) crappy “L” lawn, loaded with wildflowers, which I love. The neighbor and I both choose what we each deem H, based on emotional values, my love for wildflowers and his love (perhaps need) for status, praise, and/or that perceived notion that H means uniform green like a golf course. Which is the real H? Mine, of course.

  2. cnahr

    Ah, but you describe the usual situation (except in your last paragraph) where low quality is either grudgingly accepted due to a lower price, or else cleverly hidden from the recipient. The curious situation described in the paper is one where both participants in an exchange want L instead of H, even though they both agree that H would be better.

  3. The Balsamean

    Reminds me of my favorite song in The King and I … “A Puzzlement”
    When I was a boy
    World was better spot.
    What was so was so,
    What was not was not.
    Now I am a man;
    World have changed a lot.
    Some things nearly so,
    Others nearly not.


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