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.