Monday, April 20, 2009

Second Impressions

I have to admit to being one of the last (okay, nearly the 34 millionth) person to hear about Susan Boyle. It is a delightful story: the duckling who turned into a swan before the cynical eyes of the Britain's Got Talent judges (including Simon Cowell). Go on, if you're even further behind the populist curve than I am then join the other 33.7 million viewers and watch it on YouTube.

I like the analysis of the story over at the Psychology Today blog. Their conclusion:

Don't judge a person's physical attractiveness based solely on his or her physical attributes.

That's right - it seems second impressions are more lasting than first impressions. And yes, even as superficial a species as men do actually change their opinions about some attractive women even after very (very) positive first impressions. Which is kind of reassuring after all the neuroscience that was telling us you've got 0.5 seconds to make an impression or its too late.

But the Susan Boyle story points to a wider issue. That's the issue of how we judge talent. I read a delightful research paper recently called Superstars and Mediocrities: Market Failure in The Discovery of Talent. The author Marko Terviö explores why so-called 'talent' gets so highly rewarded in many sectors of the economy, when objectively it would be quite cheap to replace the incumbents with equally adequate workers for a fraction of the cost (bank executives anyone?) Terviö concludes that:
... any profession where the ability of inexperienced workers is subject to much uncertainty, and where performance on the job is to a large extent publicly observable, is a likely candidate for market failure in the discovery of talent. This market failure would manifest itself as a bias for hiring mediocre incumbents at excessive wages. Markets for lawyers, fund managers, advertising copywriters, and college professors are among other possible cases not explored in this paper. It can be argued that differences in talent that are only discovered on the job are in fact the main source of talent rents in the economy. If that is the case, then much of observed superstar incomes could be, instead of a rent to truly scarce factors, a symptom of inefficiencies in the discovery process of talent, largely resulting from limitations to legally enforceable contracts.
His solution appears to be fixed term contracts all round - that way new talent will have a better chance of making itself known in time to replace under-performing incumbents. Mind you, they have that in politics don't they (elections and all that), but you wouldn't exactly say it has, eh, ensured that the cream has risen to the top?

Maybe instead we need a political version of Ireland's Got Talent? Susan Boyle for Taoiseach anyone?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. In all of the coverage that Susan Boyle has got very little has been mentioned of the fact that on the same show a few years ago Paul Potts elicited more or less the same reaction from the same judges. If you watch the two clips you will see how the judge react in more or less the same way. It is an unusual case of public amnesia.
    On the talent front there is a race to the bottom in many sectors now where companies realize that they can get people to do things for free that used to be well paid. Many girls will model for magazines for little or no pay. For the glory of being published many writers will accept little or no payment. There are counteless translation sites where people will translate text for free whereas before you would have paid a translator. In IT you see that the user forum of many systems is more efficient at answering questions than the vendor helpdesk (nice way to save on your support costs).
    There are sectors where stars at the top are paid ridiculous amounts but maybe it is only a question of time before people realize that most non-specialist tasks these days do not take so much ability and certainly do not justify the salaries that the likes of Irish politicians get.
    By the way, thanks for your blog, it is aways a pleasure to read.

  3. This is a great round up post which I really enjoyed reading. I also liked Kate Holmquist's piece in the Irish Times, among others. You can find a link here:


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