Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Information Asymetries and Incentives

On the weekend, I purchased Freakonomics (it reminds me of another recent work of "pop" economics I read in the summer called The Economic Naturalist) and it has already proved a stimulating read. I have long been interested in social science, of working with real data to try to understand society and then go somewhere with that.

One of the opening themes of the book is a concept the authors call "information symmetry"; the common practice that experts/professionals often hold significantly more information than their audiences or lay people. There is some good research that suggests powerfully negative effects to this. The book examines tens of thousands of house sales in the Chicago area and notes that real estate agents selling their own property typically have that property listed on the market longer and typically sell for much better prices than their clients. The question is one of incentives; if a person selling their property raises the price by $10,000 they get all of that, but if you are working on elaborate commission system, you might earn as little as $150 or $200, so it may not seem worth the effort.

Given the non-profit motives (and indeed, aspirations to empower people with information) of many in the information profession, I wonder how the question of incentives play out. As far as experts go, librarians - on a vague and ideological level, anyhow - are committed to eroding our informational advantage in favor of users. This strikes me as good in many ways, but might that explain some other things? Such as why other professionals who sharply control information or manipulate information (e.g. doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, some scientists)?

What makes people come to us? Is it desperation (i.e. information we have cannot be obtained any other way) or something else (preference for filtering)? I do think there is something to be gained from asking the incentive question in a more systematic fashion. What is the effect on incentives if we make services more difficult to use (or conversely, refuse to provide easy methods of access)?

As usual, I don't have well formed ideas on this but I wanted to share some views to provoke further thought.

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