Monthly Archives: November 2016

Lies, Dupes, and Shit Tests

Leaders sometimes tell outrageous lies. Maybe they are channeled through “fake news” sites. Of course fake news has been around forever — e.g., we’ve long spoken of “government mouthpieces” and propaganda. How could leaders get away with such lies?

A great read on this is a working paper by Andrew Little: .pdf Here is a summary: .html. Andrew’s theory supposes that some segment of the population are dupes — gullible enough to fall for the lies. Of course if most people are dupes, there is not much of a story to tell (though not to say it isn’t accurate). But the world also contains sophisticates who can see through the lies. The dupes could nonetheless induce sophisticates to express belief in the lie (even if privately the sophisticates think differently). The reason is that the sophisticates share a sense of the need for consensus. So they will go along, not because they believe or even like the lie, but because they would simply prefer to be part of the consensus.

A complementary way to think about this does not require there to be any dupes at all. I call this the “shit test” explanation. Suppose everyone is a sophisticate. But for at least some of these sophisticates, it is important to be in good standing with the leader. Then the leader can say something outrageous, but this serves as a shit test: the leader can use this to check people’s commitment to the leader. If you are truly devoted, you will “swallow the shit.” The more outrageous the lie, the better as a shit test (although maybe the leader cannot push it too far). The way people respond therefore conveys information about whether they are with the leader or not. The leader’s allies might also beat other people over the head with the shit: are you with us or against us? You would expect separation in people’s expressed support for the lie on the basis of their degree of attachment to the leader or the degree to which they feel compelled to go along with the leader’s allies. An implication of the shit test theory is that a mirror phenomenon is also possible: when the leader speaks truths those who are alienated from the leader may have reason to deny those truths.


Election questions

  1. R votes were about what they were in the past. What we really need to know is whether these are almost entirely people who have chosen R in the past. If yes, then the big question for Rs is “why would they accept him?” If it’s lots of new R votes, compensating for lots of Rs who didn’t vote for R again, then the question is “why these new Rs for this election?”

  2. D votes are down relative to the past. What we really need to know is whether this is primarily because lots who voted D in the past either stayed home didn’t vote (whether by choice or because of suppression) or voted third party. If yes, then the big question is “why didn’t they vote for D again?”

  3. If neither of the above accounts for what happened, then the implication is that a non-negligible share of people who had voted D in the past were actually comparing what R and D had to offer, and at least in a select set of districts in a select set of states, chose R. Then the big question is “why would they switch?”

My current belief, based on results (vote shares, vote share swings, and vote totals) and my own understanding about voters, is that 3 is unimportant, asking about the relative appeal of the R vs D candidates is irrelevant, and better understanding would come from examining why Rs do what they do as Rs and Ds as Ds. But my belief about this would change if I saw individual-level survey data or voter file data suggesting that 3 is in fact important.


Notes on trust

Let’s think about trust in the context of the trust game. In the trust game, the first mover has the option to engage in a transaction with a trustee. Specifically, the first mover has the option to transfer resources to the trustee in hopes that the trustee will enhance the value of these resources and then share the surplus back with the first mover. Trust, then, is the first mover’s willingness to engage in the transaction with the trustee. We can use this conceptualization in thinking about trust generally.

We can imagine two different sources of trust:

  1. Trust predicated on the first mover’s beliefs about the trustee’s intentions or motivations—that is, trust based on beliefs about the trustee’s intrinsic motivation to avoid doing harm to the first mover.

  2. Trust predicated on the first mover’s beliefs about whether the trustee is constrained by extrinsic circumstances that affect its ability to hurt the first mover.

The behavioral implications of the two types of trust are the same insofar as each yields the same prediction about whether the first mover would engage in the transaction with the trustee. Moreover measures of “generalized trust” do not distinguish between these two per se (though in principle you could look to see whether such measures correlate more strongly with things that affect intrinsic motivations versus extrinsic circumstances).

Where the difference matters is in thinking about how levels of trust might change and why levels of trust vary.

In terms of measurement, “lab in the field” methods are typically motivated in terms of isolating the first, intrinsic, source of trust. The argument is that “in the lab,” and under conditions of anonymity, there is no scope for punishing the trustee. That being the case, such lab-in-the-field methods are not always what we want. That is, maybe sometimes we want to measure change in terms of the second, extrinsic, basis for trust. Now, we could modify the lab measure such that behavior is not anonymous. That would allow us to get at some of the extrinsic bases, although not necessarily all. My hunch is that most people would think that giving in the non-anonymous set-up would tend to be quite high (I am sure people have examined this, but I don’t have the references at my finger tips). That being the case, it follows that most people must believe that such extrinsic bases for trust are first order important.