Bryan Caplan  

The Shield: Social Intelligence Gets Ugly

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I just finished the final episode of The Shield, FX's drama about a squad of corrupt LA cops.  I loved every episode.  At risk of alienating people who will share my evaluation, The Shield is like The Wire, except it's fun to watch.

During the final season, I noticed the centrality of social intelligence to the show.  While there's a lot of violence, there's a lot more persuasion - and the lead characters are very good at it.  What's striking, though, is that the lead characters are particularly good at deception and intimidation.  What lie will X believe coming from Y?  What threat can X hang over Y's head to make him take some unpleasant action?

An example that won't spoil the plot: In one episode, Detective X is on the run from the police, and Detective Y is trying to locate and kill him before the honest cops do.  Detective X knows this, so he calls Y to tell him that he's sending a blackmail parcel to the station's captain.  As a result, Detective Y has to divide his attention between searching for X, and intercepting X's blackmail parcel in the mail.  But then the captain gives Y a street assignment.  He doesn't have any trusted confederate to cover for him at the station.  So Y goes to detective Z, a divorced cowardly nebbish, and tells him the perfect lie: "I was dating someone on the force, she got mad, and now she's sent a letter badmouthing me to the chief."  And of course Z says, "Don't worry, the chief will never get that letter."

A key element of The Shield's major characters' social intelligence: Knowing whose opinion counts.  Out on the street, the central characters' corruption is common knowledge.  There are hundreds of eyewitnesses to their heinous crimes.  But since the witnesses are gang members, prostitutes, illegal immigrants, etc., they're either untrustworthy, easily threatened, or both.  The upshot: Their testimony isn't much of a check on official abuse.  At the same time, of course, there are respected citizens who want to crack down on corruption, but they can't prove a thing in a court of law - and won't act until they can.

Outside a game of Diplomacy, deception and intimidation play no role in my life.  Not only are they wrong; at least in my social niche, they're highly imprudent.  In repeated games, deception quickly backfires; see the proverb "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."  Intimidation often backfires as well, inspiring anger instead of fear.  Indeed, in the absence of high exit costs, intimidation is pointless - people respond by running away instead of knuckling under.  Still, I have to admit that I'm fascinated by The Shield's depiction of finely honed social skills so far outside my repertoire.  Give it a try - I know of no more entertaining way to learn about the ugly side of social intelligence.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
user writes:

Highly entertaining and interesting take on a great TV series.

Robinson writes:

You might disagree, but I think the seventh season of the Shield is up there with the second season of Dexter in terms of all-time great TV seasons. Astounding in both plot and character.

jake writes:

you won´t alinate me, the wire IS boring.

Zac Gochenour writes:

As someone who has seen both The Wire and The Shield, I have to disagree with the statement that they are alike. The Shield is more fun to watch; I think it would be hard to argue that. They are alike in the sense that police are involved and they are both great shows, but I do not agree that they are similar in the way Bryan seems to be implying. Its analogous to saying Beethoven's 7th is like Beethoven's 6th except the 7th is fun to listen to..

The Wire is comparable to a Russian novel, with an expansive cast of characters (yet not character-driven) and intricately interwoven storylines. It is not character driven and it is light on action, making it "boring" to some audiences. It is not really a show about cops, but rather a show about a city that has a lot of crime. It is by a considerable margin the best show ever written in terms of artistic value.

The Shield is essentially a popcorn show, although one of the best of its class. It is primarily character-driven, with some reasonably well-written dialogue but forgettable story arcs. It is a cop show through and through, with the twist that the cops are corrupt (The Wire, otoh, focuses on the institutions and how they lead to bad outcomes, rather than on individuals, who may very well have good intentions).

Steve Sailer writes:

Deception and intimidation play no role in your social circle?

Oh, come now.

You don't think that what happened to, say, James Watson doesn't have an intimidating effect on lots of people and encourages deception?

FJ writes:

zac, as someone who has seen both shows, the backhanded compliment toward The Shield doesn't go unnoticed. The Wire is hardly the best show ever written, and its artistic value is certainly no more valid than that of The Shield. The Shield was not a popcorn show, and if you had watched the final season in particular, you'd have known that. The Wire was more outwardly focused, sure, and particularly in seasons 1 and 2 we saw more of the criminal's perspective than you might have seen on The Shield. The two shows weren't similar, but it sounds to me like you're a Wire fanboy who is sick of Shield comparisons and wants to praise your show over the Shield's for pride's sake. Get over it. If we can judge for a moment both shows by the way they ended, The Shield was vastly superior and retained its level of quality far and above that of The Wire, Sopranos, or any other show claiming to be the "best ever" for a longer period of time, from the first episode to the last.

James A. Donald writes:

Bryan Caplan wrote:

deception and intimidation play no role in my life. Not only are they wrong; at least in my social niche, they're highly imprudent.
Well perhaps you personally never engage in deception and intimidation, but it appears that in your social niche they are highly prudent.

For example economics papers studying the empirical effect of rises in the basic wage find that raising the basic wage has little effect on employment, proving that demand for low wage workers is highly inelastic, while economics papers studying the empirical the effect of low wage immigration find that such immigrants have little effect on low skill Americans, proving that demand for low wage workers is highly elastic.

In the field of climate research, whenever a paper appears presenting data that suggests that the world is not warming now, or has warmed and cooled a great deal more in the recent past without very dire effects, the potentially hazardous scientific facts are invariably preceded and followed by pious holy rolling declaring faith in global warming in vague religious terms: "the earth has a fever", even though if you read the actual science presented in the paper, it says the opposite.

I have not paid a lot of attention to the economics papers, but I have studied a lot of papers relevant to global warming, race, and several other controversial topics, and it is apparent to me that in most of the more interesting papers, the writers are lying about their true opinions, most blatantly in the race related papers.

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