You are visiting another university and have arranged to meet someone from that university in the lobby of the hotel you are staying at. The hotel lobby is busy with many people and (for some strange reason) neither you nor the person you are supposed to meet have recognizable pictures on their webpages. How will you find each other? What is the mechanism behind it? How is this possible at all?
When you enter a lift, a bus, a doctor’s waiting room, or any other smallish place in which you and others are just waiting for something to happen, one of the key decisions you face is to choose where to stand or sit. How do we do this? What are the key factors (motives) behind our decisions? What are the consequences of this? What are the testable implications?
Our starting point is Goffman’s Relations in Public Chapter 1.II on “Vehicular Units”. Goffman is here interested in the norms that regulate traffic, especially but not only pedestrian traffic. He first quotes Edward Alsworth Ross, Social Control, New York: The Macmillan Company (1908), page 1: “A condition of order at the junction of crowded city thoroughfares implies primarily an absence of collisions between men or vehicles that interfere one with another.”
Goffman on page 6 then states the following: “Take, for example, techniques that pedestrians employ in order to avoid bumping into one another. These seem of little significance. However, there are an appreciable number of such devices; they are constantly in use and they cast a pattern on street behavior. Street traffic would be a shambles without them.”
In this post I want to take up this claim and provide a model that allows us to discuss how people avoid bumping into each other. I will use Goffman’s work to help me to identify the appropriate model for this issue.
In April 2018 I spent a week at the Research Center for Social Complexity (CICS in Spanish) at the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD) teaching a PhD research course on game theoretic modelling. The idea of this course, developed together with Carlos Rodriguez-Sickert, was to make it an experiential course of model building from question to model. We would start by reading parts of chapters of two books by Erving Goffman that deal with how people interact in public places and then attempt to provide game theoretic models of what we read.