Resentment, Rationality, and Paris Hilton

Whenever I survey some behavioral law & econ literature, I seem to run into some variant of the “ultimatum game.” Two parties usually “play” the game. The first is given some amount of money, and then has to decide how much to allocate to the second, and how much to keep to himself. The second then has to decide whether to take what is given (and allow the first to keep what he has), or to refuse it, in order to deny the first his share as well. I have heard that the “second party” will often reject amounts below 30% of the overall pie. The principles of ultimatum games may influence a wide range of research:

Ph.D. candidates in economics at Harvard recently ran an experiment to figure out how inequality affects workers’ efforts. They gave three groups of participants puzzles to solve and rewarded them in different ways. The first group, in which everyone received the same reward, regardless of performance, didn’t solve many puzzles. The group in which the best maze solver got all of the rewards — and no one else got anything — didn’t do too much better. The group that had a sliding scale of rewards, based on performance, did the best.

Economists and philosophers draw diverse “morals” from the ultimatum story. Robert Frank argues that the prevalence of “resentful” responses leads fairer “individuals [to] succeed, even in highly competitive environments, because their commitment to principle makes them more attractive as trading partners.” Critics suggest that the the refusenik manifests irrationality.

That’s a pretty intractable debate, but I think this essay on Paris Hilton by Kay Hymovitz provides an interesting point of view on what’s at stake in the interpretive struggle.

Hymowitz first notes the Hilton heirs’ ill-gotten gains:

[Conrad Hilton] left the vast bulk of his fortune to the Catholic Sisters. It was only through the energetic legal maneuvering of his son Barron that the Hilton progeny got their mitts on Conrad’s money.

Though few know the origins of Paris’s wealth, Hymovitz believes that the ridicule she attracts shows the vigor of our democracy:

Paris is America’s national cartoon heroine, a caricature who allows us to mock the undeserving and decadent rich we have scorned since the time of Tom Paine. We follow the Perils of Paris the Heiress in new episodes that seem to come almost weekly, snickering at her vapidity, her coarseness, her libertinism, and her outrageous assumption of entitlement. . . . Paris Hilton may be a composite of contemporary American sins, but hating Paris Hilton is another thing entirely. It’s a sign of lingering cultural sanity.

So is this resentment good?

It all depends on what you compare it to. It would certainly seem to be better to mock Hilton’s pretensions than to aspire to her status. A general societal pressure to maintain positive affect should not lead to censure of our dismay at the rise of the asinine.

But I worry that, in the end, the expression of negative affect, rather than discharging it, merely breeds more. That’s the position of Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teachings have helped inspire some valuable movements in the legal world.

So by all means let’s tax Paris and her pals. But let’s do so out of a sense of what good that money can do, rather than merely in order to cut down the tall poppy.

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