Saturday, July 07, 2007


Of my aside in this post, I thought I'd note the following.

Men with high testosterone levels are too proud or magnanimous to make sound business decisions (as, say, Aristotle also noticed). So rational choice theory should appeal, most of all, to testosterone-challenged men--economists and accountants, who prefer, as Mr. Mansfield explains, "rational control" to displaying their excellence. A real man, we might say, has too much b---- to be low-balled, even if accepting the low offer in his interest.

Posted by Peter Lawler

Indeed, there is a new paper out with the provocative finding that choices made in a one-off ultimatum game are correlated with testosterone levels, with high-testosterone men being more willing to reject low offers and more willing to make high offers (i.e. more willing to accept a loss when in the position of power and more willing to reject a possible gain when in the subordinate position.

But compare that post to this one from the indispensable Tyler Cowen, or to this Economist article. Tyler characterizes the result as "we are programmed to be spiteful." I'd say: We have positional preferences-- pride and vainglory as well as compassion-- and high-testosterone men weight their positional preference for dominance relatively heavily compared with their absolute preferences for gain. This, I find to be intuitive rather than counterintuitive, though a clever way of getting at it. Certainly the fact that there are people who will cut off their noses to spite their faces-- accepting absolute losses in order not to lose status-- is not novel. Hobbes knew it; so did Montesquieu; so did Smith.

Hobbes characterizes people like that as among the greatest threats to peaceful human coexistence-- because, unlike the desires for security or for absolute material gain, the desire for status can't be satisfied for everyone simultaneously. Positional competitions are zero-sum.

Hobbes seemingly hoped we could do without that destructive bit of our psychologies. This was much greater optimism than later thinkers showed, though they hoped that the most stupidly destructive aspects of it (e.g. dueling) could be curbed-- and, later, Mill and others hoped that the Romantic shift from Excellence to excellences might diffuse status competitions, letting persons excel in more various arenas. (And compare: Will Wilkinson, and here and here and here.)

By contrast: the genuflection before the manly Mr. Mansfield, the sneering reference to girly-men [Accountants! How wimpy!], the conflation between "excellence" and sheer dominance or pridefulness, and the faux bravura of the manly cuss that the gentleman can't bring himself to utter. So much appallingness in so little space! I'll reiterate the rhetorical question from my aside: Has any good ever come from someone who feels the need to announce he's being manly?

At the risk of seeming to denigrate my own field, I have to wonder whether Peter (a fellow political theorist) would deny that those girly-men economists have rather more status across a number of dimensions than we do, or that their willingness to accept merely absolute goods like big raises doesn't seem to have hurt their comparative positional standing in the social sciences...

Update: Peter responds.