Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Economics of Bragging

Driving from DC to Indy several weeks back to start the fall semester, I had plenty of time to think over the phenomenon of bragging, particular with reference to athletic endeavors.  Everybody knows the story of the quiet champion (3-time Ironman world champ Craig Alexander , known for his humility, comes to mind) and the loud-mouthed also-ran (Brian Bosworth, anyone?).  I wonder if one can state in economic terms the effect of braggadocio on athletic endeavors.  (Caveat:  I'm not an economist; I don't play one on TV; and I rely heavily on excellent students with econ. backgrounds when teaching a few class sessions on antitrust economics every spring.)

The initial analysis is very simplistic, but it explains Brian Bosworth and Craig Alexander.  It falls short when you consider Neon Deion Sanders -- undisputedly one of the great all time athletes in professional team sports, but nobody's shrinking violet -- or Muhammed Ali, who spoke among other gems, "I am the greatest.  I said that even before I knew I was."  (N.B.:  When using historic or current public figures as examples, I am relying entirely on one-dimensional public images of those figures, rather than making any actual statement about their persons, personalities, or conduct.)

The second part of the post considers the countervailing effect of commitment strategies, one of the lessons from behavioral economics.

For definitional purposes, I define "bragging" to be any publicly disseminated expression about oneself that is positive.  I include in this definition wearing a marathon t-shirt when running, which is, after all, a statement that "I am a marathoner."  Notably, I also include blogging as bragging.  You will rightly challenge this definition -- is it bad to say anything good about oneself?  Can't we have a conversation online about a mutual interest?  Does sartorial selection really amount to self aggrandizement? -- but I will respond that I do not make a normative statement about bragging.  I only analyze what is the expected impact of bragging, thusly defined, on athletic success.

The Naive Model -- Bragging Makes you Weak!

I envision an indifference curve representing choices between two goods:  Positive Feelings and Leisure.   Positive Feelings are a result of athletic success, which requires commitment and an investment of time as well as mental and physical energy.  Leisure is its opposite -- no effort and no positive feelings.  Watching a football game makes you a lesser athlete, preventing your feeling good about it.  (We can quibble at the margins with train-less theories and the like, but in the final analysis, I propose you feel the best about your athletic self when you train a lot and reap rewards from it.)

Using this graph (found on Google -- for attribution purposes, apparently posted by faculty at the University of Texas), Y might represent Positive Feelings and X might represent Leisure.  At a high level of athletic success/Positive Feelings (high Y, low X) this particular athlete is satisfied despite a lack of Leisure; at a high level of Leisure (high X, low Y), this particular athlete is satisfied despite a lack of Positive Feelings; and the middle of the range somewhere is where the runningprofs all seem to fall.  (We like to do our best and feel good about it, but not if it gets in the way of Under the Dome.)  The importance of indifference curves lies in the fact that anything below the curve is sub-par, while anything above the curve is unattainable with our current resources (time/willingness to expend energy).  In a world without bragging, I am driven to a certain level of exertion to accomplish the requisite Positive Feelings at least to keep myself on the indifference curve.

Does bragging change the analysis?  It is a partial substitute for athletic success.  I can either knock the ball out of the park or I can say "I will knock the ball out of the park" and get the attendant reaction -- we can probably agree the former is better than the latter, but I propose the latter is better than nothing.  Thus, Positive Feelings are now caused by bragging plus athletic success.

Bragging bumps us to a higher indifference curve (from K1 to K2 on the graph above).  Now we can achieve the same amount of Leisure and also a higher amount of Positive Feelings.  To intuit this, running a marathon gives me a certain amount of Positive Feelings.  Talking about it for a while afterward (or wearing the t-shirt, or blogging) adds to those Positive Feelings.  The talking prevents my needing to train for a second marathon, thus increasing my Leisure.

Leisure is a pure function of time, so we can assume that can't increase on its own.  The only other way, outside of bragging, to jump to curve K2 is to invest more energy in athletic success.  Bosworth seemingly relied on braggadocio to achieve the requisite Positive Feelings; Alexander relied on doubling down on the work-and-commitment front.

Having hatched this theory on my drive, I came to the tentative conclusion that I should gift all my race t-shirts to charity (to be clear, there isn't room for them in the drawer anymore, anyway!); I should either discard or at least toss into a box my obnoxious stash of race medals; and I should take that goofy Boston Athletic Association 26.2 sticker off of my car.  Not having the diluted benefit of talking about myself will increase my need to invest energy in athletic success, so as not to fall off of the indifference curve to which I have become accustomed.

The Behavioral Model -- Can you Live Up to your Persona?

But it's not so simple.  (It never is.)  The naive model cannot explain Neon Deion, who achieved remarkable athletic success while never being quiet about it, or Usain Bolt, who is reported to have said, among other quotables, "If I get to be a legend, then I've achieved my goal."  My theory is that those two athletes, as well as the more garrulous Aussi Ironman Chris McCormack, author of I'm Here to Win, deliberately or otherwise set themselves up for embarrassment and thereby force themselves to live up to their created personas.

I know about myself that having created something of a persona as an athletic sort, I do my best to live that persona.  When in the past I've fallen out of that mindset, it is easy to go weeks or months without serious physical activity.  Indeed, the nearly six years between my second marathon (January 2001) and my third (November 2006) were something of a bleak dead zone during which, thank goodness, youth and metabolism prevented my falling into an unrecoverable slump.  Since 2006?  I don't know how I'd manage if I tried to spend a sedentary week.

Behavioral economists have studied the phenomenon of "commitment strategies" in inducing individual behavior.  Dean Karlan, Ian Ayres, and Barry Nalebuff founded "stickK," a website devoted to "empower[ing] you to better your lifestyle. We offer you the opportunity, through 'Commitment Contracts', to show to yourself and others the value you put on achieving your goals."  Commitment strategies can be extreme, as when I donate my leftover holiday cookies to the office coffee lounge (committing not to eat them) or spend thousands on a new triathlon bike (committing to use it).  They can be fairly minor, as when I announce an intent to do something hoping I will thereby be shamed into living up to the announced plan.  (Commitment strategies can be employed by others preying on our cognitive biases -- a classic example is the car salesman who gets you to agree to the statement, "if I come up with a good deal for you, you will buy this car.")

To what degree the commitment strategy of an announced goal induces one to achieve that goal is an empirical question.  Anecdotal evidence suggests it may work.  Usain Bolt is indeed achieving the status of a legend.  My own example is much more mundane:  P__ asked before Timberman my goals for the race, and I responded "33' for the swim, 2:36 for the bike, and 1:32 for the run."  Dead on for the first one; well under for the second, and I didn't meet the third, but in my defense, I nearly fell over at the end.  The same approach worked at Nation's Triathlon three weeks later.  It didn't work for me at Lake Tahoe, although I might argue nobody predicted just how difficult that race was going to be.

I also imagine there is a more general commitment strategy at play.  I think by wearing running garb, thereby announcing "I am a runner," a person establishes a penalty -- shame -- for not running.  So too with blogging:  having written about recent marathons, don't we all find ourselves needing to discuss our future marathon plans or to justify not having those plans?  A far afield analogy:  announcing "I am a professor" risks my being asked "what are you writing" -- so I'd better be writing something (other than this blog post) so as not to be embarrassed!

For another angle on this same argument, a persona as an athlete is an asset, the loss of which may be felt dearly.  Whereas somebody with no athletic persona stands to gain from athletic success but not to lose from its lack, somebody with an athletic persona stands to lose from the lack of success.  Behavioral economists also understand that losing what we possess tends to be perceived as more costly than gaining what we do not yet possess.  Under the approaches related in both this and the prior paragraph, conduct meeting my definition of bragging increases rather than decreases the inclination to pursue athletic success.

How does the behavioral story fit on the indifference curve?  On the one hand, bragging bumps us to a higher curve by granting some additional Positive Feelings (Naive model, above).  On the other hand, the behavioral model suggests bragging bumps us down because by setting expectations it reduces the payout from what we have accomplished.  The question becomes not about the past marathon but about the future marathon.  To remain on the higher curve K2, I now need to double down on the investment of energy by training for the next race.

This last proposition is more difficult to intuit.  I see it this way:  if I walk around saying "my goal is to break 3:00:00 for the marathon," that statement dilutes my accomplishment when I run a 3:01:13.  To get back to even, I have to go back out and try again.

The Aggregate Result

Unsurprisingly, this being an economic analysis, it is impossible to determine theoretically whether braggadocio helps or hurts either in an individual case or across all iterations.  I detail a few anecdotes above and conclude, for myself, I probably gain something in terms of athletic performance from creating my own self-image as an athletic person.  That happens through blogging and wearing t-shirts and telling people about my races.  I surely hope I do so with sufficient discretion not to be a bore.

Some of the pro athlete examples suggest the self-promotion strategy is an effective one for top competitors as well.  Ali created for himself hype and then lived up to it.  Others suggest perhaps it is not.  Bosworth flamed out early in his career, possibly because he gained enough from the hype not to need the real reward of athletic success.


  1. Man, you really are an academic, aren't you? (grin) This brings me back to my econ days; I hadn't encountered the phrase "indifference curve" in fifteen years or so. I agree with all of your analysis except for your implicit equation of blogging with bragging. I think that's probably true for many, but not for everyone. A goodly number of my blog posts are tales of epic failure, because in general I find those more interesting than entries that say, at root, "I did good went fast won trophy yay."

    One thing I don't quite follow is your supposition that, by bragging less, you'd have to train more and perform better in order to regain a particular indifference curve. I think that notion holds only insofar as you assume that bragging has a cost that displaces training and performance. To my mind, bragging is so common precisely because it has very little cost. Thus, for any given level of training and performance, bragging is a Pareto-improving move. I think the more interesting question is why bragging isn't more universal than it seems to be.

    1. I'd argue that bragging is a substitute for actual success. How else do you explain so many pot-bellies talking about "glory days" (thanks, Bruce) rather than getting themselves fit so they can continue living glory days. If I keep my mouth shut, I can either be correctly assumed to be a non-athlete, losing out on all those positive feelings of athleticism, or I can demonstrate my athleticism by working hard at it and succeeding.

      Example: at the end of an IM I can by "IM Finisher" garb (as you know). Why do so? That way I get a year of wearing it and the attendant "free" reputation for athleticism. Otherwise I have to actually keep running Ironman to maintain that reputation.

  2. So, to summarize, bragging might or might not improve athletic performance. Or, just as likely, is completely unrelated.

  3. You just described the entirety of economic thought from Adam Smith to the present.

  4. Analyzing my own behavior when talking about future events, I buy into the commitment device view. I think that applies to any discussion of future events. Indeed, predictions of times whether high (a brag) or low (a humble brag), or even just telling folks that you are going to undertake a serious athletic endeavor, are ways of reinforcing your own commitment.

  5. In other "behavioral" news, talking about upcoming races and time goals also serves a framing device. Since none of us are going to actually win the race, we define success through a series of frames. Interestingly, I tend to frame A races and B races differently. B races I tend to set modest goals, or none at all. A races, my goals are often quite ambitious. As a result, I'm almost always happy after a B race and often have my very best results. By contrast, my A races often feel like a series of near misses . . . There's a lesson in there somewhere.

    1. Well said. Absolutely agree. Few things better than showing up on a lark and going home with a great finish. Few things worse than showing up loaded for bear and going home with a goose.