I recently finished Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. For those looking for a more academic take on signaling (particularly from a sociological point of view) it’s a great find. As I previously mentioned, Gambetta uses the extreme case of cooperation amongst criminals to tease out more general dynamics of trust, signaling, and communication. The Mafia can be considered a “hard-case” for theories of signaling trust; given the extreme incentives for criminals to lie and the lack of credibility they wield given the very fact that they are criminals, how is it that criminals manage to coordinate their actions and trust each other at all? By understanding how trust works in this harsh environment we learn something about how to signal trustworthiness in broader, less restrictive environments. As Gambetta notes:
Studying criminal communication problems, precisely because they are the magnified extreme versions of problems that we normally solve by means of institutions, can teach us something about how we might communicate, or even should communicate, when we find ourselves in difficult situations, when, say, we desperately want to be believed or keep our messages secret.
The book is a great example of studying deviant cases or outliers, particularly when the area of study is not well worn. This is a valuable general methodological lesson. We are typically taught to avoid outliers as they skew analysis. However, they can be of great value in at least two circumstances: 1) Generating hypotheses in areas that have not been well studied and 2) Testing hypotheses in small-N research designs, where hard cases can establish potential effect and generalizability and easy cases suggest minimal plausibility. Continue reading