Motivational Misalignment

June 30, 2012

Interesting about causal inference and the techniques for trying to avoid biases in observational studies; I look forward to your further exposition.  Is Pearl’s book on your reading list as well?  On a related note, do you know much about surveys and how data from surveys can be used in observational studies?  There are two reasons for my query. 

The first is that I was recently reading a paper on methodologies for surveying organizations so as to avoid biases and another on how to elicit probability estimates from humans using a novel graphical interface.  It seems to me if one can avoid certain biases and acquire “soft” information, that is perhaps half the battle, but I don’t really know if there is mathematics to support this feeling.  For the second, if you follow my meandering path, you’ll see how surveys and observational studies show up: in a previous post I had said I would talk about walking around Cambridge in April and so let me do that. 

I was there for the first Collective Intelligence Conference and it was rather inspiring and much more interdisciplinary than I have been to before.  The speakers/attendees included social scientists, computer scientists, people from business schools and law schools, and others.  My own talk used methods from cognitive history to try to understand potential differences in the nature of deduction between individual intelligences and collective ones by examining particular artifacts.  IBM is also getting big into collective intelligence.  But that is not what I wanted to talk about in detail. 

Instead, I wanted to bring to your attention the talk by the legal scholar Yochai Benkler and ask you what you think.  This especially in light of the statement you had made:

Business is business and life is life; the technologies being developed for both are similar, but their objectives are fundamentally different.

Broadly speaking, he was talking about designing human systems that involve the application of power by some participants or organizers on other participants, such that power will not lead to motivation misalignment.  A legal system is one design methodology for imposing power that may avoid motivation misalignment due to forces of legitimation.

Many empirical studies show that trying to apply power by acting on material interests can undermine intrinsic motivations.  The reason motivational misalignment arises is that most people’s motivations cannot be reduced to a simple scalar-valued “economic utility” calculus.  Benkler lists four major classes of motivations:

  • Material interests
  • Moral commitments
  • Emotional Needs/Affective Responses
  • Social motivations/connections

(I know for me, the three intrinsic motivations are typically stronger drivers than material interests, and perhaps this is broadly true for many.)  Benkler then describes some types of motivational misalignment that can occur.  One is normative framing, where the introduction of explicit incentives can frame a decision as one where self-interest is the appropriate moral framework, as opposed to one where other-regarding moral commitments are appropriate; I know this can definitely be troubling to me.  The next, as he says, is:

The second is interparty negative signaling, that is to say, if the behavior is one in which in social situations we think a reasonably well-adjusted or competent person would do because it is the right thing to do and then you offer a reward or you threaten a punishment, you’re signaling to the other person that you think they are incompetent, inappropriate and then they basically get turned off and walk away and do something else.  So that’s the negative signal, you add the reward, it’s not self-signaling, it’s not that it’s no longer a useful way for me to understand myself, it’s a way for me to read from you who I think have information about whether or not I am competent at this, to say no I won’t.

Later, he goes on to say:

Once people get used to being pro-social, once there are rewards that are social rewards and social recognition, you see a shift over time with increased levels of pro-social behavior or if you have a context in which everything is interpreted and rewarded as something that’s purely about material interests you have a decline and then shifts over time.

and then argues that social norms are a great way of preserving common community and legitimating actions of power.  I think this class of ideas can be useful not only for society but also for social systems for knowledge work.

So that finally brings me back to surveys and observational studies.  In a trip to Cambridge about six months ago (one previous to the one in April) I met up with a friend of the blog, Peter Jones, and we went candlepin bowling and had a bit of discussion about Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.  I finally picked up a copy and have just finished reading Section II on Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital.  The several chapters in that section lay out an impressive array of evidence—much of it survey-based, all of it observational—on the decline of social capital and civic life in the United States since the 1950s and 1960s.  The next parts put forth potential explanations and possible fixes.  Thus I wonder whether either causal inference or the system design concepts that Benkler introduced will come up.  I hope so!

Although spending time with the collective intelligence community was very intellectually stimulating, I’m looking forward to spending time with my “home” academic community of information theorists at ISIT, my national community on the banks of the Charles, and my family at lunch on Tuesday.  So I guess I’ll see you in Cambridge, eh?

Just a warning, I probably won’t write while I am away in India, so feel free to write as many consecutive posts as you like, but know that it is not a case of what Putnam (p. 152) writes quoting Robert Wuthnow, “[in small groups], the social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations.  Come if you have time.  Talk if you feel like it.  Respect everyone’s opinion.  Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.”

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