Like pretty much everyone I enjoyed the performance of Susan Boyle on Britain’s got talent. I love Les Miserables and she did a great performance of an incredibly difficult song from the show.
However, what stirred me up the most was the behaviour of the crowd and judges. Both were very dismissive to start with – undoubtably a product of the format of the social situation they were in. Unlike many commentators, I do not believe that the crowd and judges were strictly representative of “most” of reality.
We could argue that this type of social situation represented an extremely concentrated version of reality – so that the implicit biases and signals used in society were amplified, and therefore easier to spot. If this is the case, the dismissive nature of the crowd illustrates something quite uncomfortable about all of us.
But I disgress – following the judgments, once Miss Boyle illustrated her talent the behaviour of the crowd changed, and changed remarkably.
In many ways the crowd (and the female judge) massively overcompenstated for their poor judgments when they were wrong.
Now call me cynical – but this is the bit I found the most uncomfortable. Once people realised that Miss Boyle was a winner they “jumped on the bandwagon”. If anything they got in the way of her performance by loadly exclaiming “I like it too!!”.
The judges then carried on with this rubbish by mentioning that she was being laughed at during the discussion of her performance – instead of focusing on the fact that she had done a bloody good job of a damned hard song.
The pathetic reaction by the crowd and the judges illustrated a fundamental part of the issue – that people are trying to maximise their utility subject to an amazingly fluid institutional surrounding and our understanding of this social change and its impact on social welfare is weak.
What are you blabbing about?
It is true that Miss Boyle’s performance illustrated two facets of human nature that make us a bit uncomfortable:
- we are too quick to judge people instead of investing to reveal information (as the social benefit of doing so is greater than the private benefit),
- we tend to over-signal our involvement in the “popular” equilibrium – as there are positive spillovers.
Now, each individual is a choice maker – but a set of individuals in a group establishes the payoffs that the individual gets from their choice.
In such a situation, small signals (such as someone’s looks) can quickly be used by a group to create an institution that excludes such people – even if the equilibrium where this person is excluded is pareto inferior (or simply worse for everyone than a situation which includes them).
Furthermore, it took a strong shock by her to change the eqm. This idea is summed up by this quote:
I dread to think of how Susan would have left the stage if her voice had been less than exceptional. She would have been humiliated in front of 11 million viewers.
Even if she was good – the crowd had turned against her. She had to do more, just because the institutional environment was “over-using” the effectiveness of the signal.
Susan Boyle illustrated such a case so clearly, and so starkely, that it makes us all feel uncomfortable – but even more importantly, it makes us all think about how we treat other people.
Ultimately, it is not government’s which define whether societies co-operate and solve prisoner’s dilemas (although they can sometimes help) – it is the experiences, expectations, and beliefs of societies (and in some sense the individuals understanding of their own preferences).
Economics does not understand how these experiences, expectations, and beliefs are formed – and as a result we do not understand institutional settings. THIS IS OUR MAIN FAULT. [Although I would note that no-one has convinced me that anyone actually has a good grip on these issues]
However, even from my limited knowledge I feel able to conclude that events such as this lead to overall better outcomes. Quite a gift from someone so roundly scoffed at her before the performance!