Reaper functions dominate other incentives

Every institution has a set of actions that will get you promoted, earn or lose you prestige, get you a raise, or increase your power, get fired. Note that these actions aren’t bundled in the straightforward ways that you might expect - for example, prestige actions might possibly get you fired, or power-increasing actions could have nothing to do with promotions and raises could have little to do with prestige. Institutions have implicit, explicit, and perceived missions.

The actions that will get you fired are an institution’s reaper function.

The sum total of these ‘incentive functions’ explains what people in the institution actually do. Institutions shape how individuals interact through these incentives. These functions apply equally to institutions that are organizations (like The New York Times) and institutions beyond organizations (like Journalism.) Institutions are the second level of a group selection evolutionary system.

One way to approach this framework would be to ask ‘what are all the incentive functions within this organization?’ It’s certainly an intriguing question. First you would want to know what the different classes of function are - reaper, prestige, money, power, pleasure …? And then you would need to dig into each one for any given institution, keeping in mind the multi-level nature of institutions; what earns you power at one institutional level may lose you power at another. Fishes and ponds.

Another approach might be to start with a ‘principle component analysis’ where you first ask ‘which functions dominate incentives?’ and pay attention primarily to those. In this approach, the reaper function trumps all the other functions in terms of incentive generation. (If it were a normalized principle component analysis, the reaper function would have something like a 0.75? weight.)

This latter approach is much more efficient and probably more effective most of the time for analyzing institutional behavior. And the situations where the reaper function does not dominate are interesting in and of themselves because it means there are actions with large enough potential upside that it’s worth being kicked out of the institution.

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