Incompetence as a Signalling Device

by Henry Farrell on August 26, 2009

“Scott”: has a great short piece at _IHE_ on Gambetta’s book on communication among criminals, which _inter alia_ summarizes Gambetta’s theory of the signalling benefits of incompetence in Italian academia.

bq. Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the _baroni_ (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, he says, the struggle for advancement involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. …The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. … “… and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.” … Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the _baroni_ is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

bq. “Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message _I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else._ In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”



evil is evil 08.26.09 at 6:15 pm

Uh, you might want to check out the Phds for sale in Germany.


Jacob T. Levy 08.26.09 at 6:35 pm

*Excellent.* I love it. And, of course, I immediately started thinking of examples…


Doctor Science 08.26.09 at 7:23 pm

Now *that’s* a theory with broad applicability, if you know what I mean.

I recently read Deer Hunting with Jesus, and was thinking about Sarah Palin and the glorification of ignorance and ill-education in what David Hackett Fischer calls American “Borderer” culture. Gambetta’s theory makes the light bulb go off, for me.

If education is a ticket out of poverty or marginalization, then poor and marginalized people will (rightly) see it as disloyal to the group or the family, unless it goes along with a strong tradition of supporting your parents and extended kin. Proud ignorance is proof that you won’t leave your kin behind — because you have no-where else to go.

Do any of you know if Gambetta talks about such signalling by Japanese yakuza? They are famous for using tattooing and self-mutilation as demonstrations of loyalty and commitment.


Barry 08.26.09 at 7:23 pm

Has his work been peer-reviewed? The theories make nice ‘just so’ stories, but….


Jacob T. Levy 08.26.09 at 7:28 pm

This has the beautiful side-effect that the Peter Principle need not be perverse. Doing something like making an incompetent member of your department chair could increase your department’s effective bargaining position within the university.


K McNeel 08.26.09 at 7:29 pm

It sounds an awful lot like the mechanism Roland Fryer describes in his research on ‘Acting White.’


George W 08.26.09 at 8:23 pm

Most depressing thing I have read this hour.


John Quiggin 08.26.09 at 8:46 pm

I experienced this in a past position, and reached the same analysis as Gambetta. My attempts to signal that I would leave if I didn’t get better treatment were exactly the wrong ones to send. The people who won the battles were those signalling “I can never go anywhere else, so I will fight to the death to get my way here”.


Chris Williams 08.26.09 at 9:05 pm

What’s the way out of this, then?


zic 08.26.09 at 11:18 pm

Sound like submissive behavior displayed by non-alpha members of a pack.


Henry (not the famous one) 08.27.09 at 12:49 am

We encountered something similar to John Q’s experience when organizing the employees of a nonprofit that assisted women in abusive relationships. When the employer turned up the pressure — after the union had won the election — the chief activists stayed true to their principles and left.


lemuel pitkin 08.27.09 at 1:02 am

I’ve thought for a while that the embrace of numerology and bizarre cosmology by Black Muslims plays a similar role — it’s a signal they can’t be co-opted by the white establishment.

Which suggests this sort of signaling is not always a bad thing — it depends on the group among whom solidarity is being fostered.


Dr Zen 08.27.09 at 1:47 am

That’s an interesting thought. I work casually for a group of papers owned by a large news corporation, and it’s common currency there that the best way to get yourself promoted is to be entirely incompetent. The management are distrustful of competence: it’s threatening to people who are only too aware that they don’t have any. It’s not so much that you could go elsewhere though: they can always hire more incompetent people to do what you do, given that they do not value competence at all.


c.t.h. 08.27.09 at 2:04 am

I think DrZen nicely summarizes the most disheartening conclusion from the article: if competence is not valued, the competent have no leverage.


Alison P 08.27.09 at 8:44 am

I think intelligence is a social performance, and hence lack of intelligence is also a performance. You can see the same person exhibiting hugely different levels of competence, in the same skill (let’s say mental arithmetic) in contexts in which competence and incompetence are variously acceptable. To add up a series of figures takes a certain amount of effort, while saying ‘I can’t do maths’ might be met with warm smiles (depending on context). I don’t blame anyone for making that choice.

I use this as an example as it’s particularly noticeable that ‘can’t do maths’ evaporates when the person gets a job behind the bar in a pub. But it obviously applies across many competencies.


ejh 08.27.09 at 8:50 am

This could have been written about the library service at an elite London university in which I spent four years working for cheats and mediocrities. Among the important things is to look after your managerial colleagues’ incompetence and right to evade their responsibilities, because you understand that you will need them to be equally indulgent as regards your own.


derek 08.27.09 at 9:42 am

Will people please stop misrepresenting Peter’s Principle? It has nothing to do with promoting incompetent people into positions of power more rapidly than competent ones. It says that if you keep rewarding competent people into positions of greater and greater responsibility, they will eventually crash; at which point, they (being obviously incompetent) are stuck and can go no further in their careers. So everyone is eventually promoted to the exact level at which they suck at their jobs.

The observation that some people seem to rise rapidly in an organization despite being idiots may be a valid one, but it needs a different name. “Peter’s Principle” is already taken.


JoB 08.27.09 at 10:00 am

There has to be some irony in the fact that these message boards will tend to be dominated by a niche of people which are individually bright but socially rather incompetent ( & signaling one’s competence by showing off one’s intelligence isn’t a very socially competent reaction). Clearly, there is also a case to be made for some people shrugging off anybody’s promotion as “See, it is always the managerial kiss-a**e types that are rewarded.”

That being said: it is always the managerial kiss-a**e types with some deep sociopathic characteristics that get rewarded. It’s an element of group psychology that first there’s selection for social competence and only then for competence in whatever the final goal is (a sociopath is well adapted to survive). There just has to be some empirical research into this more than good but indeed ‘just so’ story-telling. Who has it?

The problem is not that groups tend to reward incompetence but that groups are rewarding – as long as you need to be popular in a group to get to something, we’ll be ruled on average by those that are on average mildly sociopathic and below average on competence.

(by the way: derek – thanks)


alex 08.27.09 at 10:38 am

Not to take too much issue with you there, JoB, but you’ve got sociopathic tendencies and good group-integration skills doing the same job in that schema. Unless you’re argument is that people are predisposed to like sociopaths, something needs a little more teasing-out there.


Richard J 08.27.09 at 10:44 am

It’s not necessarily sociopathy per se – more the ability to strike the balance between working with other people well and looking after your own self-interest in a way such that’s it’s weighted in your own favour.

I’ve worked with a few people with genuinely ruthless personalities over the years, and they both rise and fall without trace – they move up hierarchies very quickly, but the old adage about being nice to people on your way up as you’ll meet them on the way down has some truth to it.


Richard J 08.27.09 at 10:53 am

Actually, that’s not quite right. They tend to get stuck at a particular level – in accountancy firms (my main experience) just below partner level, the latter, despite popular reputation, not being complete fools.


ajay 08.27.09 at 10:57 am

The observation that some people seem to rise rapidly in an organization despite being idiots may be a valid one, but it needs a different name.

It’s the Dilbert Principle: “companies tend to promote the least competent most rapidly, as a way of limiting the amount of damage they can do”.

Let’s take a model company which makes widgets. It has three levels of employee: at the top is A, the boss; beneath A are B1 and B2, the middle managers; and they in turn oversee C1 to c6, the bottom-level employees who actually work on the widget assembly line. When B2 retires and needs replacing, A, according to the Dilbert Principle, will not promote C1, the best widget maker, because C1 is too valuable in his/her present position – taking C1 off the line and replacing him with the untrained new recruit D will cripple production. Instead, she will promote C6, who is barely competent as a widget maker; the loss of C6 and his eventual replacement by the only slightly less able D will not affect productivity that much.


Jacob T. Levy 08.27.09 at 10:58 am

Derek– mea culpa; I know better than that, but suffered an attack of the stupids.


JoB 08.27.09 at 10:59 am

alex, how do you know I am part of that group? Other than that: I confess :-)

(no, liking is not part of it, to get promoted you don’t need to be liked (except by a couple of the decision makers) – it helps that you can do as if you’re liked by others, the actual liking is, now – for some reason or other – people do like me; maybe because I’m part of those people – and also not really a part of them … then again, that may be further proof of my tendencies)


alex 08.27.09 at 1:16 pm

Now I’m really confused. And BTW, I can’t believe I typed ‘you’re argument’ up there. Guess I must have changed thoughts in mid-stream…

On the ‘ABC/Dilbert’ argument – of course, making widgets has nothing to do, as a skill-set, with managing widget-makers. Much of the contempt for management comes, I suspect, as a consequence of decisions taken on the basis of the mistaken notion precisely that you could take anyone from list C and they could do it…

[Which is not to say, either, that ‘management’ is a set of purely self-contained skills and that a ‘manager’ can manage any process with equal facility…]


JoB 08.27.09 at 1:29 pm

alex, I misread you as accusing me of being a manager, sorry. No – I don’t think that there is the type of contradiction that you suppose (bearing in mind I was being polemical). As far as I know it is quite possible for sociopaths to be good at social interaction. How would you class ruthless rulers that knowingly sacrifice hoards of people to torture, or do you think that all of them are a bunch of introverts that managed to work through the party ranks without social interaction?

And it is true: making yourself look good to the decision makers is more important than being a competent one for the job. It’s the stuff that makes the tissue for discrimination. Looking better to disguise your incompetence is anti-social but requires social skills.


ajay 08.27.09 at 1:29 pm

24: I think the original Dilbert Principle (which I do not really subscribe to) was slightly different, alex: the idea was that smart people tend to be both good widget makers and good managers, but that a bad widget maker is a lot more harmful to the company than a bad manager, because the difference in impact between a good and a bad manager is minimal.


Harold 08.27.09 at 8:36 pm

The usual rule for the ambitious is you are supposed to hide or downplay your competence (assuming the milieu isn’t completely corrupt as in Italy). You will make allies if you allow other people to take credit for your successes and if at the same time show your willingness to take responsibility for failures. It’s sprezzatura, to use an Italian word. But I gather Italian academia is a thing apart, as far as actual misfeasance and corruption.


rea 08.27.09 at 8:45 pm

I can’t believe I typed ‘you’re argument’ up there.
I misread you as accusing me of being a manager, sorry

Okay, you guys can stop signalling now–I’m convinced . . .


JanieM 08.28.09 at 12:04 am

“Will people please stop misrepresenting Peter’s Principle?”

Will people please stop calling “The Peter Principle” “Peter’s Principle”? ;)


Punditus Maximus 08.28.09 at 4:47 am

If the whole point of a market economy is that institutions can and must fail, then by definition, it must eventually be true that in order to succeed at something, you must join up to a different institution.

That is, if the selection is at the institutional level, that means that there will be institutions in death spirals. You can’t fix them, only get value from them and leave them.

See also: why it would have been immoral for UAW to try to help save GM.


otto 08.28.09 at 7:30 am

Working in a meritocratic-enough institution, I not infrequently hear these sort of stories of how badly Italian universities are run. Does anyone have a link or two to suggest for a New Yorker article length description of the situation?


JoB 08.28.09 at 8:10 am

rea-29, where do you deliver our prize?


El Cid 08.28.09 at 1:07 pm

I agree as commented early on — this really spoke to me about why so many Republicans of the Bush Jr. era went out of their way to emphasize their proud ignorance and their gleeful incompetence.


Lurb 08.28.09 at 3:07 pm

Hi otto
I don’t know about Italian universities, but happen to know about Spanish ones, and suspect that the issue must be quite similar.

Full tenured proffessors in Spain are in fact public servants. Once they earn their position they cannot be practically ever fired, as every other public servant here. Being such an all or nothing proposition, there must be an objective and fair proccess that all public servants must go through to earn this plum life. This is called “oposicion” which consists in competitive written and oral testing of all candidates by a jury.
Decades ago those juries were formed by tenured staff from the department where the new position was opening, which almost assuredly resulted in any “local” candidate getting the position, no matter how good the “foreign” intruders might be. If more than one local candidate existed, the one with a most powerful godfather within the department invariably won.
Lately this proccess has been complicated, trying to avoid this effect: The jury is no longer appointed, but the result of a random draw, and must include two members from other institutions.
But little has changed: the randomness just makes the civil wars within the departments a bit more convoluted and interesting, but ultimately the biggest&baddest warlords still manage to win, and the inclusion of “foreigners” has just extended those clan wars in scope: The outsiders must tread very carefully and learn who to support, lest they anger someone that might strike back when he sends one of their lackeys to their own “oposiciones”.
In tune with some of the ideas in the article, in fact avoiding militancy on one of those “gangs” and thinking your academic excellence will triumph is a sure recipe for failure. Neutrality is the worst position, as no one will vouch for such an unreliable ally. Even if your “gang” is weaker, at least you can rely on someone.
I must disclose that bitter as all that may sound, I’m not a proffessor, haven’t ever tried nor intend to ever try, and admit the whole thing is enormously fun to watch from the sidelines, though I understand that it does little service to the quality of our research and higher education.


Henri Vieuxtemps 08.28.09 at 3:43 pm

Well, sound like in this case the manifestation of incompetence is a signal for loyalty, so, in fact, loyalty is what’s rewarded, not incompetence per se. If the boss is your uncle you’ll probably get promoted even if you convincingly manifest your genius at every opportunity.


otto 08.28.09 at 3:52 pm

The institutional arrangements though – can’t fire the Professors etc – dont seem too different from Anglophone countries, but at least in my experience these can coexist with meritocratic-enough hiring. So there must be a bit more to it…


lemuel pitkin 08.28.09 at 4:39 pm

Is there evidence that the output of Italian universities is in fact worse, by whatever metric, than in other comparable countries?


JoB 08.28.09 at 4:42 pm

Well, Henri, yes, loyalty is rewarded because it is a group phenomenon (but Italy & the maffia and incompetence sell better and are farther from home).


Doctor Science 08.28.09 at 6:57 pm

Henri, I think the point is that incompetance is a *truthful* signal of loyalty. The incompetant *must* be loyal, they have no alternative.

If the boss is your uncle you’ll probably get promoted even if you convincingly manifest your genius at every opportunity

Not necessarily at all — in that case you’re a threat to Uncle himself, even more than to the people lower down.


Henri Vieuxtemps 08.28.09 at 7:40 pm

I don’t know, it gets confusing.

On one hand I can see how my incompetence forces me to be loyal to the institution (to work through the ranks), though not necessarily to be loyal to any individual, since, presumably, I’m at least competent enough to stick a knife into your back. That seems kind of weak.

On the other hand, if incompetence (or rather the loyalty it generates) is in such a high demand, then I probably don’t have to be loyal to the institution in the first place: I am in demand, I can easily find another, better hierarchy willing to adopt me.

A bit of a paradox here, no?


Perezoso 08.28.09 at 7:43 pm

For lifers, collecting tats might symbolize fatalism of a sort, but for professional criminals and gang members (even ones who bounce in and out of pens), they are a mark of distinction, a tag, totems of a particular group. Gangs use specific tats, or numbers, acronyms : it’s not just sh*ts and giggles. You see a swazi–or scrawling in espanol, or a WSPP, 187– on somebody’s neck or arm, other perps have a good idea what he’s about–as do the cops.

Most gangs require that youngsters enact some type of serious crime, successfully–including murder (the Hells Angels formerly required an aspirant to kill a policeman) –before one is “verified”; and the ink indicates that Jr has been verified. So it’s a sign usually that the gang member has succeeded, in a sense. (Ink on a female–like on her buttocks– usually means a pimp put it there as a sign of uh, ownership). Youngsters who get a gang tat when they have not been verified have made a grave error, however .


urgs 08.28.09 at 9:37 pm

Maybe thats just a case of specialisation? Some specialice in University politics some in science, some in teaching.


Doctor Science 08.28.09 at 11:01 pm


On the other hand, if incompetence (or rather the loyalty it generates) is in such a high demand, then I probably don’t have to be loyal to the institution in the first place: I am in demand, I can easily find another, better hierarchy willing to adopt me.

No, because that is *by definition* not loyalty. If you are capable of shifting your allegiance like that, then you are — by definition — not loyal. That’s why incompetence is a signal more than a desirable trait in itself — incompetence is cheap and can be found anywhere, but loyalty by definition does not move.


skidmarx 08.29.09 at 1:38 pm

I recently did some work in a parks and gardens department of a council where there was much speculation as to why one manager acted in such an arbritrary and de-motivating manner. It was suggested that he would be thus prepared to implement cutbacks when senior management demanded them, that he would flush out those resistant to management, and that his loyalty to mangement would endear him to similar employers elsewhere (perhaps the above definition of loyalty is incomplete).
Amongst drug-dealers there may sometimes be a fear that intelligence is sometimes linked to a tendency to talk too openly, and thus increase the risk to others.

Comments on this entry are closed.