The Shield: Social Intelligence Gets Ugly
By Bryan Caplan
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.