Signaling, Education, and Culture

by Russ Roberts on January 22, 2013

in Civil Society, Education

Bryan Caplan explains the costs of being different or appearing different:

Suppose you suddenly discover a far better way of doing X. Your discovery uses fewer resources, yields higher quality, and even has more positive externalities than Ye Olde Standby. There’s just one catch: your discovery is a discovery. By definition, no one currently does X your way.

In many cases, you can shrug, say “So what?” and proceed. If your discovery is “Eating a mango a day keeps the doctor away,” go for it. But open-mindedness often bites the hand that feeds it. If other people (a) are watching you, (b) will take your new behavior as a sign of non-conformity, and (c) value conformity either instrumentally or intrinsically, then “What will the neighbors say?,” is a serious question. And any serious question is a serious reason not to adopt your discovery despite its merits.

For example, suppose you discover that Star Trek uniforms are cheaper, more comfortable, and safer than conventional clothing. Before you switch to full-time Trekkie wear, you would be wise to ponder other people’s reaction to your fashion statement. If you’re even vaguely connected to mainstream American society, that reaction would probably be very negative. You’d probably lose your job, your friends, and maybe even your spouse. (If any). Why? Because you’re acting weird, and most people loathe the weird… or the correlates of the weird.

At the end of the post, Bryan notes that his critique of differentness is partly an argument against online education. He’s arguing that online education is unlikely to take off because you’ll be signaling that you’re weird for getting an online degree instead of going to a bricks-and-mortar college.

I too am uncertain of the potential of online education to threaten bricks and mortar institutions, but I think Bryan’s argument is wrong on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Empirically, how does Bryan explain the home-schooling movement? In 2007 there were 1.5 million home-schooled children, about 3% of the school-age population. I call that a big number though Bryan might disagree. But the point is that millions of kids and their parents risked the stigma of appearing extremely different to their neighbors. They did that because they thought it was worth it. Eventually, it doesn’t look so different.

On theoretical grounds, if Star Trek uniforms really are cheaper, more comfortable, and safer than conventional clothing, there will be cultural forces that will work to make them more appealing. Otherwise how does any innovation happen? Bryan wants to argue that conformity ossifies our behavior, but the world around us is full of non-conformity that eventually becomes no big deal. The first few people who bought a Palm Pilot looked goofy poking at a screen with a stylus. I remember. I was one of them. Now, it is totally culturally acceptable to poke at a screen with a stylus. How did that happen? PDAs are useful, so there were market forces to encourage tolerating the poking behavior. And Palm and others had a financial stake in making that happen. But it’s not just the financial stake, it’s the improvement in life that follows from a good innovation that makes it culturally cool eventually. The first guy that stopped wearing a tie to work may have looked weird. But it’s catching on. Casual Friday is just the first step of many.

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