Gambetta, a professor of sociology at Oxford, has studied the problem of trust from a game-theoretic perspective, and he considers the issue of signaling in trust games. Signaling is a process in which a party in a game-theoretic setting indicates that he is going to follow a certain strategy. For example, it is well known that a way to win a game of chicken is to visibly rip off your steering wheel and wear a blindfold. Then your opponent will see that there is no way you can steer, and so he will steer. (Cf. Bush administration foreign policy.)
In the book, Gambetta considers trust in criminal organizations, in which one cannot rely on the rule of law to enforce compliance. He posits that a signaling strategy for members of crime organizations is to signal incompetence; the logic being that if you are unable to do anything else, then you are not going to try to go ‘legit’ and so (i) you are not a threat to the businesses that you are shaking down of eventually becoming a competitor, and (ii) you are reliant on the crime organization to provide for your livelihood and so you are not going to antagonize it.
Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Gambetta goes on to explain how this applies to Italian academia. I don’t have to book, so I quote McLemee as he quotes Gambetta:
Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, he says, the struggle for advancement involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. …The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. … “… and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.” … Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.
“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”
The comments at Crooked Timber are also worth reading.