Wrong Frame

I have long been a huge fan of  Robert Cialdini’s first book, Influence.  The original printing is the best because it retains the maximal emotion.  He was horrified to discover that people had these clever tricks for manipulating his behavior.  The book is written as a kind of handbook for how to defend your self.  Later editions, and his later books, are colored by a more even handed attitude, and sometimes you think he’s gone entirely over to the darkside.  I’m suspicious the makes a good living giving talks to salemen.

I’ve not read the most recent book  Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive but there is a nice short summary of all 50 techniques to be found here.

Reading those I was struck by one entry:

As time goes by, the value of a favor increases in the eyes of the favor-giver, and decreases in the eyes of the favor-receiver. Researchers asked a group of people in the random office environment to exchange favors and then rate the value of the given/received favor in their eyes. A few weeks later the same employees were reminded of the favor, and asked to evaluate the favor again. Favor-givers consistently assigned higher value to a given favor, while as the time passed by, favor-receivers tended to assign lower value to the received favor.

Ha!  That’s amusing, but the reason why it’s amusing should be drawn out.  It’s amusing because the entire statement is an oxymoron, a farce in one line.  Such misunderstandings are always amusing.  It’s a category error.  Favors are gifts, they are not economic transactions.  When you do a favor your are not collect IOUs in the currency of some pseudo economy.  If you think you are, well then your not doing actually favor, your playing a game.  Keeping score.  And there is nothing wrong with playing a games, lots of games in this life.  Certainly lots of activities labeled as gift exchanges are in fact just point scoring in some game or another.  But if you think your playing such a game you presuming that the recipient knows the rules of your imaginary game fraught with affordances for misunderstandings.  And, that is the stuff of farce.

It helps to recognize that it is in the nature of public goods that the books do not balance.  To push them into that frame is to miss the point.  Recently I’ve come to saying to people who are suffering from this category error: “Those books don’t balance, nor should the, but if we must think in those terms how do you want the accounts to look when you arrive at your deathbed?”

Persuasion  is often the art of moving the decision into an advantageous frame.

4 thoughts on “Wrong Frame

  1. Edward Vielmetti

    There’s two accounting schemes for good works. One goes under the name of “general reciprocity”, where all of the good that accrues to you from others accumulates into a single account, and you balance things out based on that. (In that system it’s OK to lend to someone and have the favor returned by someone else.) The other perspective is “specific reciprocity”, or a strict tit-for-tat to clear accounts individually with each one.

  2. Ben Hyde

    Ed – I don’t think so. That’s just a patch of a flawed model. But I’ll play along for just a bit. My point is that these books don’t balance, these markets don’t clear. It’s another symptom of how broken the metaphor is that we can get more transactions under a general reciprocity model, but in turn that only makes the probablity of clearing the market much lower.

    I kicked off from that quote in part because it raises yet another issue; what’s the interest rate on the ‘debts’ of this bogus market model?

    If we are going to adopt a monetary model of these exchanges obviously we will need to have an interest rate. But that’s clearly not going to happen since there is no market where the transactions are clearing out fast enough to create a clear signal about what that rate is.

    That one side thinks the rates is positive and another thinks it’s negative is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Markets where transactions clear regularly are exceptional beasts, they require tremendous infrastucture and full time experts to manage them.

    The only reason the idea has legs at all is because those who succeed in monetary markets have a stake in spreading that conceptual framework more widely.

    To me this confusion is very similar to the attempt to force property rights onto information goods. Like that it’s a category error. Sure, that’s a nice hammer, but this is not a nail.

  3. Edward Vielmetti

    Ben – you’d be surprised to know how in how many markets these kinds of exchanges are explicitly monetized. People pay for referrals all the time – that’s a kind of exchange where someone’s recommendation gets translated directly into dollars. And people will go to great lengths cultivating and rewarding their referral networks through monetary and social favors to ensure that they get a steady stream of commerce in return.

  4. Ben Hyde

    Surprised? Heaven’s no! People convert public and club goods into these games all the time. The entire online social networking industry is based on the idea that one can monetize the role of facilitator in these system. But, the moment you do that they are no longer public goods. Converting public goods into private commercial goods has ethical complexities. These arise because they exists in fundamentally different frames.

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