Signaling, Shame, and Silence in Social Learning
NBER Working Paper No. 25169
We examine how a social stigma of seeking information can inhibit learning. Consider a Seeker of uncertain ability who can learn about a task from an Advisor. If higher-ability Seekers need information less, then a Seeker concerned about reputation may refrain from asking to avoid signaling low ability. Separately, low-ability individuals may feel inhibited even if their ability is known and there is nothing to signal, an effect we term shame. Signaling and shame constitute an overall stigma of seeking information. We distinguish between the constituent parts of stigma in a simple model and then perform an experiment with treatments designed to detect both effects. Seekers have three days to retrieve information from paired Advisors in a field setting. The first arm varies whether needing information is correlated with ability; the second varies whether a Seeker's ability is revealed to the paired Advisor, irrespective of the seeking decision. We find that low-ability individuals do face large stigma inhibitions: there is a 55% decline in the probability of seeking when the need for information is correlated with cognitive ability. The second arm allows us to assess the contributions of signaling and shame, and, under structural assumptions, to estimate their relative magnitudes. We find signaling to be the dominant force overall. The shame effect is particularly pronounced among socially close pairs (in terms of network distance and caste co-membership) whereas signaling concerns dominate for more distant pairs.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25169