Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Economics of Language and Courtesy

Someone commenting on my previous post mentioned the Gricean maxim of relevance. Checking the Wikipedia article on the Gricean maxims, I find the interesting comment that:

“Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit.” (Bach 2005).

The maxims can thus be seen as an application of the economic approach to understanding behavior—the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to choose the best way of achieving them. The objective is communication, the maxims describe how best to do it, and a listener dealing with potential ambiguity in speech—for example ambiguity in the meaning of “most”—can sometimes resolve it by assuming that the speaker is using the word with a meaning that achieves that objective. Where what is relevant is which candidate won an election, “most” is likely to mean a majority or even a plurality: “The party that got most votes was …”. Where what is relevant is whether there is a substantial minority for whom a statement is not true, “most” is likely to mean an overwhelming majority: “Most of my students understand English, so there is no need to provide translations of the readings into other languages.”

For a second application of economics, consider a scenario offered by a friend in a recent conversation on courtesy. Someone cuts into the checkout line ahead of you. One possible response is to accuse him of cutting into line. An alternative is to point out to him where the end of the line is, with the implication that he merely made a mistake.

My objective is to get him to go back to the end of the line, getting me through a little faster, and to do it with a minimum of unpleasantness. By treating his act as a mistake I lower the cost to him of doing what I want, since doing so does not require him to implicitly confess a deliberate violation of local norms. Lowering the cost to him of doing what I want makes him more likely to do it. What my friend regarded as behavior due to courtesy appears to me as a simple application of economics.

One can carry the argument one step further. If, instead of offering the norm violator an easy out, I loudly upbraid him, he will be less likely to quietly concede his error . But, since I will have raised the cost to him of cutting into line, he may be less likely to do it again. If my objective were the general good rather than my own private good, that might be the sensible choice, deterring future offenses against other people at some cost in current unpleasantness. In my friend’s view, the reason to be courteous was the benevolent desire to maintain social harmony. But courtesy, at least in this case, causes me to sacrifice the general good for my private good—precisely the behavior that economics predicts.

6 Comments:

At 1:55 PM, August 24, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

If, instead of offering the norm violator an easy out, you draw your gun and shoot him, then you solve both problems at once. You could admittedly incur some other problems as a result.

"The law was very firm, it took away my permit, the worse punishment I ever endured."

 
At 3:58 AM, August 25, 2010, OpenID hudebnik said...

If, instead of offering the norm violator an easy out, I loudly upbraid him, he will be less likely to quietly concede his error . But, since I will have raised the cost to him of cutting into line, he may be less likely to do it again.

I'm not sure you've raised the cost to him of cutting into line. For many people in this sort of situation, the conflict (and the experience of coming through it without conceding) is an adrenaline high and acts as a reward.

 
At 9:20 AM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous Kid said...

You also create a lot of unpleasantness that might bother the other people around you. I'm not sure if even altruistic people shouldn't also be courteous here.

How I would like to be treated if I violated social norms is for someone to communicate clearly that they disapprove while at the same time keeping the cost of fixing my mistake low.

 
At 6:57 AM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! This reminds me of the movie "Back to School". A line of students are waiting to buy books and Chas(Mr. Super Jock) asks Jason if he may join him and his friends in line. Jason's friend Derek says no, not unless you get a note from each and every student behind them in line...

 
At 2:09 PM, August 26, 2010, Blogger lowly said...

If you'e not willing to use up to, and including, deadly force, you better keep your mouth shut in a lot of places. You can very quickly find yourself in a situation you can't handle, if you're not aware of what the true cost of enforcing/maintaining 'norms' is.

 
At 10:36 AM, August 27, 2010, Blogger Garg the Unzola said...

It reminds me of general semantics of Korzybski.

This is completely off topic: Doesn't Coase's theorem imply that something like carbon tax would increase the transaction costs, thereby actually decreasing efficient allocation of resources?

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home