Allies and Ostracism, 2/28
The game we play on social media
Russ Roberts recently hosted Luca Dellanna, and the conversation motivated me to read Dellanna’s The Control Heuristic. The book has many more interesting ideas than can be teased out in one conversation or review. I just want to riff on one casual aside. Dellanna writes,
We act to produce feelings that remind us of the outcomes we seek, not to produce these outcomes. This principle explains our propensity to engage in useless acts that feel like useful ones, such as masturbation, busywork, or social media (“likes” are surrogates for real-life laughs, which are themselves signs of having allies).
Later, he writes,
Why do I write on Twitter? Perhaps, I want to collect clues (the likes and the retweets) that I am smart and employable. Of course, this is a confabulation. The real reason I write on Twitter is that I am addicted to the dopamine rush. Why does writing on Twitter release a dopamine rush, though? Perhaps because the “likes” and the “retweets,” which are signs of appreciation, correlate with being valuable—a condition that decreases the chances of social ostracization, an existential risk.
One of Dellanna’s central theses is that we are motivated to take actions that make us feel that we are decreasing existential risk. In prehistoric times, we faced a risk of being ostracized and cast out by our communal band. We reduced this risk by forging alliances with other members of the band. Obtaining likes and retweets gives us the feeling of forging alliances.
This game feels particularly compelling on Twitter, because of the phenomenon of the Twitter mob. We observe others being socially ostracized by the mob, and this heightens the feeling of existential risk that people face when they post to Twitter. The likes and retweets help us to feel that we have reduced this existential risk.
I think that all of us who put opinions on line in any form are playing this game of allies and ostracism. Sometimes we single out other people for ostracism. But whenever we post, we are aware of the possibility of ostracism, and any positive feedback gives us the feeling of moving away from an existential risk.
The game is not as simple as maximizing the number of allies or counting the scalps of the enemy that you ostracize. Different people are attracted to different sorts of allies. The scoring criteria that I came up with for Fantasy Intellectual Teams are the ideals that I would like to see in my allies. But other people are looking for different characteristics, such as partisan loyalty or prestigious credentials.
Long before we had social media, the game of allies and ostracism was central to academic life. When I was in grad school in economics at MIT, the powerful allies to have were Stan Fischer and Rudi Dornbusch. Dornbusch and Fischer in turn enjoyed allied loyalty from their students. I think that the key role played by allies in academia helps explain why academics take to Twitter.
Journalists and public officials also have long played the game of allies and ostracism. Public officials prefer to talk with “friendly” journalists. And journalists return the favor by telling stories from the perspective of the public officials with whom they are allied.
Corporate politics, or organizational politics more broadly, is also a game of allies and ostracism. Middle managers who play the game well earn promotions. Those who commit blunders get derailed. Fortunately, in the case of corporations, there is the scoring mechanism of profits and losses that helps keep the game somewhat honest. If you get derailed in one company, you can try your luck in a different enterprise, which is what I did when things went badly for me in 1994.