No Assholes in Foxholes

Here’s a good abstract:

Levitt and List (2007) conjecture that selection pressures among business people will reduce or eliminate pro-social choices. While recent work comparing students with various adult populations often fails to find that adults are less pro-social, this evidence is not necessarily at odds with the selection hypothesis, which may be most relevant for behavior in cutthroat competitive industries. To examine the selection hypothesis, we compare students with two adult populations deliberately selected from two cutthroat internet industries — domain trading and adult entertainment (pornography). Across a range of indicators, business people in these industries are more pro-social than students: they are more altruistic, trusting, trustworthy, and lying averse. They also respond differently to shame-based incentives. We offer a theory of reverse selection that can rationalize these findings.

One thing I was always struck with about the business I work in is how similar senior people at each company are. For the most part it doesn’t matter whether you’re an actuary, accountant or producer, everyone, particularly when working within their domain of expertise, is polite, smart, friendly, conscientious, well dressed and even reasonably pleasant looking.

Insurance, like others, is a social business. What’s more, the insurance industry is obsessed with moral hazard and has evolved a complex set of interrelationships among companies to suss it out. Only humans can tell if humans are playing for suckers.

These people need to get along, often while competing against each other viciously. It’s a bizarre setup and one that requires serious social skill.

For a different take, he authors of the study might have taken a hard look at asocial trading jobs. Behind the bloomberg terminal an asshole is no different than a saint and money follows talent.

But in most businesses, even the most competitive, success depends on getting along.

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