How incentives shape identities

Issue 27: An interview with anthropologist Allison Mickel about incentives, expertise, and identity; bots in echo chambers; why people share misinformation; and our recent events

We are excited to feature an interview with Professor Allison Mickel this week. Allison is an archeologist and cultural anthropologist, and one of Dom’s colleagues at Lehigh University.

Allison recently published a fascinating book, ‘Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: A History of Local Archeological Knowledge and Labor’—an ethnography with archeological workers in Jordan and Turkey.

Her work illuminates how incentive structures influence how people form and project identities. We are used to environments where people proudly build identities around their expertise (“I am a psychologist” “I am an archeologist”). But what happens when knowledge goes unrewarded or even punished?

Allison has identified a phenomenon she calls lucrative non-knowledge, in which workers who possess deep archeological expertise deny their knowledge and claim to work as unskilled laborers. In our interview, she explained the economic incentives that produce this surprising identity dynamic.

Dom: When I started reading your book I thought I knew what you were going to say about why those who shovel are silent, but then I was surprised! So why are they silent?

Allison: Like you I was also surprised because I truly went in expecting that I would introduce myself as an archeologist and all these former site workers who had worked on archeological excavations would be like, “I know this, I know this, I know this”.

And I found really the opposite – that everyone I spoke to would show that they had expertise. They would say things like, “Yes, I know how to date Nabataean pottery, and this is from the fourth century BCE.” But then they would deny having expertise.

And for me that contradiction was really intriguing and important: that they had expertise but wouldn’t label it that way—and especially when I introduced myself as an archeologist.

Putting those denials of expertise in dialogue with stories from the same people about times they had been fired or demoted or replaced with their brother made clear that archeologists themselves had created this economy where it was actually more financially viable for people to deny they had expertise. They would be more likely to get jobs and keep jobs if they said instead, “I’m just a simple Bedouin, you tell me what to do, you’re the one with the expertise.” 

Dom: You coin the term “lucrative non-knowledge” to account for this. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Allison: It was really surprising to me to see even in this scientific context that is interested in challenging stereotypes and uncovering marginalized and voiceless pasts that we’re still perpetuating these social roles.

We shouldn’t think of science as disentangled from economies. I think a lot of science holds itself up as a noble pursuit of knowledge. It’s important to remember that even in these contexts that are supposed to be very high-minded and above material concerns, every space is shaped by economics. Nobody is doing their job just from the sheer love of it.

Dom: Would you expect a similar dynamic to play out in other contexts? Where else might lucrative non-knowledge show up?

Allison: There have been studies done on professions like x-ray lab technicians who spend all day looking at x-rays but they’re legally not allowed to tell you what they’re seeing. Or ultrasound technicians are not allowed to tell you the sex of the baby, but they’re often better at reading them than doctors because that’s their sole job. I also think we see it in domestic work. Even in coffee shops, baristas are very creative at making new coffee drinks but often aren’t empowered to do that and are just supposed to smile and say yes to the customer who says, “I want a venti cappuccino latte”.  Um, do you want a cappuccino or a latte?  And it’s like, “Just make it!”

Dom: It seems like people might be particularly sensitive about who has expertise when expertise is the differentiator between groups. Is that maybe what’s playing out in some of these contexts?

Allison: Yes, I think the power dynamic is important. I also think the label of “unskilled labor” is a big part of it. There was a case I read about when UPS (the delivery company) in the early 2000s, I would guess, installed MapQuest in the cars and automated the delivery routes. And there was a mass exodus of drivers because they said, “My job is not to drive a car. My job is knowing a city and knowing the best and most efficient routes. My job is not to listen to a robot tell me where to go. So I’m out!”

In archeology, the idea of the separation between the manual and intellectual aspects of the work is so apparent. It feels unavoidable. You literally have the laboratory at a different site than the excavation. Or sometimes you export artifacts back to a different country.

Dom: So what do you propose as solutions?

Allison: Well, like the true comrade I am, I think we really need a structural change in hiring and management, and the labor conditions in archeology!

But I also described in the book that I ran some photography experiments where I invited site workers to engage in recording, because to me it was also about changing the nature of the job and stopping that separation of the manual and the intellectual—or that pretend separation because we’ve always relied on their expertise, we just didn’t admit it. So I invited them to photograph what was important to them.

The results were really interesting and mapped exactly onto what their specific expertise was on the project and they seemed really positive about it. So I think looking for ways to not pretend that the physical work and the intellectual work are entirely separate things.

Dom: Your concept of lucrative non-knowledge is a great insight because things often don’t change until people rally for change. But how do you mobilize if you don’t see yourselves as part of a community with shared expertise and something of value? If you’re incentivizing them not to acknowledge it, potentially even to each other, how do you create that mobilizing force?

Allison: Exactly—which is why I feel like we would absolutely find this in other sectors. It would be a really hard argument to make that American capitalism doesn’t incentivize the working class to not think of themselves as a class and as unskilled!

Research round up

A fascinating new study unleashed politically neutral bots on Twitter. The bots behaved identically and differed only in the accounts they first followed—which for some bots were politically left-leaning and for others were right-leaning. After five months, the bots found themselves embedded in echo chambers, albeit stronger ones on the right than on the left.

As the authors describe it, “We find no strong or consistent evidence of political bias in the news feed. Despite this, the news and information to which U.S. Twitter users are exposed depend strongly on the political leaning of their early connections.”

New research suggests that people don’t only share misinformation on social media because they are distracted or not paying attention. They also share misinformation because they believe it will be socially rewarded. As the authors put it, “we found that people can separate fact from fiction—and that they expect fake news to generate more comments and more likes”.


Recent events

Jay was a guest on this week’s episode of The Hidden Brain, where he discussed how our group loyalties affect us more than we realize, from the beer we buy to the way that we vote. The Hidden Brain is one of our all-time favorite podcasts, so this was a major thrill!

Dom joined the Lincoln Project’s ‘Lunch with Lincoln’ series to talk about the intersection of social identity and politics—with a special shout-out to those who dissent on principle.

And we are thrilled that The Power of Us was selected as Habit Weekly’s book of the month for September!

In case you missed it, check out last week’s newsletter…