Thursday, 15 December 2011

Flattery is a Prisoners Dilemma game

If you're not already reading Xavier Marquez's Abandoned Footnotes, you should be. N is low and quality is very high. His latest post works through status, inequality, and flattery in the Roman empire.

Augustus pretended humility and kept a lid on excess flattery to allow the Senate to pretend that it continued to have status equal to the Emperor.
The Republic was built on norms that rejected kingship and competitively allocated relatively “equal” high social status among the senatorial class, so that any credible signals of an intention to re-establish kingship seem to have greatly lowered the coordination costs of dissatisfied senators for conspiring against the emperor.
Caligula wanted to move toward Kingship, so fuelled flattery inflation:
Strategically speaking, the point of this seems to have been to lessen his dependence on the senatorial aristocracy and to move the regime towards a Hellenistic model. (Winterling discusses some suggestive evidence that Caligula might have been planning to move to Alexandria, an obviously symbolic move to the historic capital of Hellenistic dynasts). Runaway flattery inflation not only makes it exceedingly difficult for conspirators to succeed (even the most innocuous comment can be used against you when flattery inflation is in full swing) but also succeeds in completely humiliating the flatterers (in this case the senatorial aristocracy) and lowering their collective social status vis a vis the ruler. If flattery hyperinflation is not stopped, the end result is that the ruler no longer has to use "ambiguous" language to manage his relationship to the selectorate. He can just order them to do things, without worrying about slighting their status.
Individual Senators could do no better than flatter, though it debased the Senate.
I think one can extract a more general model of flattery inflation from all this. When material resources are more much more unequally distributed than status, and status is competitively allocated, flattery inflation can result. But rulers (or those who control material resources) will usually try to dampen or manage this kind of inflation, since flattery has obvious disadvantages from their perspective. Yet there seem to be circumstances under which they will try to encourage flattery hyperinflation, e.g., when the costs of coordination for challengers are relatively low and the maintenance of "low inflation" requires extensive communication management.
I would be so poorly cut out for that kind of world.

On the other hand, if you flip the word Senate for Faculty and Emperor for... ah, well, never mind. It's an exercise best left for the reader.


  1. I toyed with whether the model could be applied to who cites whom, with Senator-equivalents paying more obeisances... couldn't make it work though. Kept running up against self-citing Stiglitz. Might not be a bad model of internal workings of Unis though.

  2. Totally applicable to academic promotions, I would expect. I don't quite have the skills to do a real formal model, but it would be interesting to do one.