In defence of the neg

Both Tyler Cowen and Andrew Sullivan have turned on the attack against the “dating game”, specifically the “neg“.

Now any attack on moral grounds could be justifiable (as could any defence), it is just about personal value judgments. But both authours mention that they see the neg as a suboptimal strategy. On these theoretical grounds I do not think they are quite right.

There are a myriad of areas where the “neg” could be applied, but for the self-styled “pick-up artists” that established the idea the main area is – of course – picking up a girl.

A neg is defined as a mildly negative comment that is supposed to function in picking up (examples provided by one of the guys I think drove this irriation from Tyler and Andrew). I suspect it would function along multiple levels:

  1. Makes the guy seem more fussy (increasing his perceived dating value),
  2. Disarms the girl or makes her lower her own view of her value,
  3. Signals that the guy believes he is in a stronger bargaining position,
  4. Signals greater gains from trade.

However it functions, these guys say that when trying to pick someone up (either for a relationship or a one night stand) a “neg” functions as a dominant strategy. As a result, we can’t say that they aren’t doing the right thing for what they are interested in – it is a dominant strategy, and that is that.

Even in broadered terms although I may people may not like the concept of the neg we have to ask: if its proponents find that it is a dominant strategy where is the issue?

We may say that there is an externality, but is this really the case? Sure there is no explicit price, but if there are gains from trade in a relationship the “cost” of the neg will be internalised during said relationship.

The only “externality” that may exist will be when the girl rejects the neg – but if the girl gets to reject the guy do we really think the externality from the guys attitude would be very large?

Think of it this way. The neg is a slight offhand negative/neutral comment, not a ripping insult. It is mean’t to be so small that the girl doesn’t think the guy is a complete cock – so BY ASSUMPTION the comment in itself isn’t sufficient to make the girl reject the guy!!! Given this, any girl that rejects the guy would have even if the comment had not occurred as she views her “value” sufficiently above his. As a result, the comment is unlikely to have had much (if any) negative impact on the happiness of the girl involved.

Overall, this implies that any “externality” argument against the neg is very weak.

But there must be something wrong with it!

The one way the “neg” strategy might be suboptimal is if it involves a small cost and is a dominant strategy. In this case there would be an “arms race” of negging amount guys trying to pull. If we think this is the case it may be socially preferable not to have negs. However, we also have to be honest that this is still a dominant strategy for individuals.

If the neg is only an issue because of “multiple equilibrium” (and thereby institutional setting) I really don’t see why it would cause such a strong reaction.

Possibly we have evolved in such a way that we find the neg game abhorent in order to ensure that we reach the “pareto superior” low amount of neg equilibrium. If this is the case, the reaction of people too it may signal a genetic disposition – rather than it being some function of objective analysis.

Disclaimer: You will not see me involved in any game (other than drinking too much), it is one of the things you are unable to do as an incredibly nerdy economist like myself. I am looking at this from a purely theoretical standpoint, and felt that Tyler’s and Andrew’s dual dismisal of the concept was stronger than I felt was appropriate 😉

Update:  An expert in the field defends the neg here.  I found this interesting:

  • Newflash: The mating market is inherently selfish.
  • Newsflash #2: Negs aren’t insults. They are edgy teasing. Is this distinction so difficult to grasp?
  • Newsflash #3: If “putting down” women is so wrong, why does it feel so right to them?

Now we covered the first two points here.  However the third point, the it actually adds value and that women have a preference for this type of action is something we did not cover.  If this is indeed the case, then that is an additional argument defending the neg.

  • You read Roissy? :>

  • @Eric Crampton

    I believe I found the link after reading something on your site about how Tyler would not link to him. I can’t for the life of me remember how I found it as I don’t think you linked either 😀

  • @Eric Crampton

    It was from your site 😀

    http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/2009/04/are-you-terrorist.html

    I have to admit, it is hard to fault the guys logic in getting inputs to outputs – the only way I think I can disagree with him is to disagree with the outputs he is after.

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  • Hmmm, I think there are three issues: First, there are externalities. If negging is viewed as acceptable then it cements attitudes of male dominance that people have worked so hard to break down. Secondly, I don’t see how it is a credible signal of high value if it’s a dominant strategy for all men. Thirdly, talking about it might encourage people to read Roissy. That may even be the most socially costly part of negging.

  • @rauparaha

    “Hmmm, I think there are three issues: First, there are externalities. If negging is viewed as acceptable then it cements attitudes of male dominance that people have worked so hard to break down.”

    There is a difference between a direct externality and the impact of changing norms on institutional structure. I have conceded that this may be a concern – but given economists are unwilling to take this issue seriously in other fields I don’t know why we would suddenly pop it out as a reasonable excuse in the field of neg 😉

    “Secondly, I don’t see how it is a credible signal of high value if it’s a dominant strategy for all men”

    Indeed. However, we know that heterogeneity implies that it isn’t a dominant strategy for “all men”. And even if it was – signaling high value was only one way the strategy worked. Also, it is a dominant strategy because it signals higher value than someone that doesn’t use it – even if it is dominant for all men it doesn’t invalidate that point!

  • Matt Nolan :

    OK, so we agree that the first is a problem, even if you want to call it an indirect externality.

    On the second issue, I’m still unconvinced. A signal has to be costly to fake in order to have any credibility. I don’t see how that condition is satisfied here.

    Even if you abandon the latter two signalling arguments in favour of your first two justifications for negging I think you’re on shaky ground. For the first, I think the argument against signalling holds. Just because a guy claims to be picky doesn’t mean you’d believe him without a credible signal. Which cheap talk isn’t!

    The second seems more economically plausible. If the girl updates her beliefs about her own value by taking into account the negging then it may lower her perception of her value. However, over a large number of human interactions, I doubt this single interaction is sufficient to significantly affect her perception of herself.

    I reckon we need a psychologist here to explain this!

  • @rauparaha

    “even if you want to call it an indirect externality”

    I want to call it an issue of institutional design – not an externality 🙂

    “On the second issue, I’m still unconvinced. A signal has to be costly to fake in order to have any credibility. I don’t see how that condition is satisfied here”

    I agree that in a situation where everyone is using the device it isn’t providing any benefit – in relative terms you are the same negging chump as everyone else. But that doesn’t stop it being a dominant strategy does it?

    Think of it this way, if by not negging you signal that you are not “good enough” then it is in your interest to neg whether other people are or not – this seems like a dominant strategy to me. It might only be weakly dominant, but I still believe it is dominant.

    “Even if you abandon the latter two signalling arguments in favour of your first two justifications for negging I think you’re on shaky ground. For the first, I think the argument against signalling holds. Just because a guy claims to be picky doesn’t mean you’d believe him without a credible signal. Which cheap talk isn’t!

    The second seems more economically plausible. If the girl updates her beliefs about her own value by taking into account the negging then it may lower her perception of her value. However, over a large number of human interactions, I doubt this single interaction is sufficient to significantly affect her perception of herself.”

    Potentially, but potentially not. These are variables that we really need to estimate through field work methinks. Maybe we can find people who are keen to go and attempt dating strategies, collect results, and then do some analysis.

  • @Matt Nolan
    Hmmm, apparently I can’t use the quote button so I won’t try this time 😛

    I think the key is that the negging has to convey some information to be worthwhile as a signal. If it’s not costly to fake then it conveys no information. Hence it can’t be a signalling issue.

    Empirically, those guys may well be right that it’s a dominant strategy. I just can’t see signalling being a good explanation for why it’s dominant. You’re not happy with my suggestion that we enlist a psychologist to explain it for us?!

  • @rauparaha

    Yes you are right with this.

    However, in this case I would simply say that we must have a case where it is inherently costly for some people to show this strategy – as given actions this does seem to be a dominant strategy for those who “game”.

    I can see where you got me here, you said:

    “Secondly, I don’t see how it is a credible signal of high value if it’s a dominant strategy for all men.”

    When I never, ever, ever, made the claim that it was a dominant strategy for all men – I only said it was obviously a dominant strategy for those that used it. As a result, I got confused. 🙂

    So, we can agree that this could easily be a dominant strategy and a signaling eqm, even though we current can’t observe the makeup, only the actions.

    “I just can’t see signaling being a good explanation for why it’s dominant”

    This is based on your belief that it is low cost to neg. I am not so sure, I think for some guys this could be a high cost strategy.

    “You’re not happy with my suggestion that we enlist a psychologist to explain it for us?!”

    Of course I am, I was just suggesting that it would be a fun study to work on – I am all about studies after all.

  • @Matt Nolan
    “This is based on your belief that it is low cost to neg. I am not so sure, I think for some guys this could be a high cost strategy.”

    Perhaps you’re right that this is the core of our disagreement: a value judgment about how costly the strategy is.

    “I was just suggesting that it would be a fun study to work on”

    I dunno… I’m all about enlisting others to do the survey work and sitting in a backroom in front of my computer 😉

  • @rauparaha

    I imagine this would be an entertaining survey to watch though 🙂

  • A Lurker

    I don’t understand the economic jargon to be honest, but here are two insights I may to able to provide.

    1. The neg is a bit of a reductio ad absurdum. The idea is to prove you’re not desperate, so what proves this more than insulting the woman? So it’s really a bit of a logical fallacy.

    2. ‘The Game’ is in some ways an economists dream for rationality. For instance, there is the idea of one-i-tis, in which you don’t get obsessed with one particular woman because you rationally tell yourself that ‘there are many more fish in the sea’. This is actually very true, and this irrational behaviour can be controlled if one is self-aware, and thus reach the state of Pickup Artist (oops I meant homo economicus).

  • @A Lurker

    Interesting comment Lurker. I suspect that any focus solely on game would be detrimental to other factors we care about in life – so I’m not sure if a player and homo economicus are quite the same thing. Mr economicus is a general social animal, and he can be abstracted to the point of complete empirical worthlessness.

    Ultimately there is a trade-off, and given that some people make the decision to neg and given that it is solely outcome related (there is not “pleasure” from negging the girl per see) I find it difficult when economists say it must be suboptimal just because they don’t like it …