The game theory of everyday life – gallantry

Chapter 1.II on “Vehicular Units” of Goffman’s Relations in Public has many more “nuggets” that are amenable to a game theoretic analysis in addition to the one I described in my previous post. In footnote 23 on page 17, for instance, he talks about what we would call “common knowledge” and that eye contact is perhaps the only way to establish it (referring here to the earlier work by Lewis 1969, Scheff 1967, and Schelling 1960). This could lead one to discuss Ariel Rubinstein’s “email game” (1989, ECMA) and some of the literature thereafter (and before). On page 14, Goffman talks about “gamesmanship” in whether or not we let others “catch our eye”. I would like to think here about pedestrians visibly (to all who do not do the same) refusing to “scan” their environment by looking at their smartphone while walking. This would lead me to discuss a paper of Hurkens and Schlag (2002, IJGT) and possibly beyond that. There is also Goffman’s discussion of the apparently commonly observed practice of the “interweaving” of cars when they have to go from two lanes into one. I have not yet seen a game theoretic treatment of this phenomenon and I am not quite sure (at the moment) how one would explain it.

But in this post I want to take up Goffman’s brief mention (on pages 14-15) of special circumstances that seem to necessarily lead to what he calls “gallantry”. This is when a path that pedestrians take in both directions at some point becomes too narrow for two people to pass simultaneously. Then one has to wait to let the other person pass. But who should wait and who should be first to pass?

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America vs. Europe: some personal observations

I’ve spent a lot of time in the US in recent years, and will spend much more time there next year. I get asked a lot about the differences between living in America and in Europe, which caused me to compile a list of the differences that I found most striking. Some of them may be clichés, others may be more surprising. All of them are true, I believe, but my confidence in their truth is not uniform. I have discussed many them with friends and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, and found them controversial to varying degrees. Some of these differences have an obvious explanation, others seem hard to understand or even puzzling. I’m looking for economic explanations of these differences and might blog about that in the future. Comments are highly welcome!

An obvious caveat: My observations are biased due to the fact that I’ve only seen parts of America (California, part of the Northwest, part of the Midwest, and New England), and only parts of Europe (Central Europe, part of Scandinavia, part of France and England). One should realize that large cultural, political and economic differences exist both within the US and Europe, so all the statements below refer to averages with wide confidence bands around them.

Economic life:

  1. Prices are normally stated net of sales taxes. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  2. Tips are higher and more common. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  3. Tap water is much more heavily chlorinated. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  4. Air-conditioning is vastly more common both in private homes and offices. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  5. The average quality of houses is much lower. (high confidence, somewhat controversial)
  6. The proportion of people living in single-family houses as opposed to apartment buildings is much higher. (medium confidence, uncontroversial)
  7. The price of gasoline is about 50% lower. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  8. There are both more cars per person and cars are much bigger on average. (medium confidence, uncontroversial)
  9. Automatic cars are vastly more common. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  10. The price of necessities (food, clothing, personal hygiene) is lower, but not much, and the quality is generally lower. (low confidence, highly controversial)
  11. Food is bought and sold in much larger quantities. For instance, the smallest available bottle size for milk is usually half a gallon (about 1.9 liters). (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  12. Extreme obesity is vastly more common. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  13. The quality of infrastructure (roads, railways, electricity grid) is lower. (medium confidence, somewhat controversial)
  14. Roads are more often built in strictly rectangular patterns, both in cities and on the countryside. (high confidence, uncontroversial)

Social life:

  1. Racial diversity is immensely higher, especially in urban areas, but also in rural areas. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  2. So is religious diversity. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  3. Religion plays a more central part of public life, including in politics (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  4. Interest in family history and genealogy is much higher. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  5. Bodily contact between people in everyday interactions is much less frequent and more often regarded as inappropriate. (medium confidence, somewhat controversial)
  6. Conversations are much less formal both in professional and private contexts. (medium confidence, uncontroversial)
  7. Small talk is a much more important part of everyday life both in professional and private contexts. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  8. Adolescents and young adults seem to be more mature both in terms of physical appearance and character development. (low confidence, highly controversial)
  9. Elderly people seem to be more familiar with, and more adept at, using new technology as well as social media. (high confidence, somewhat controversial)
  10. Knowledge about foreign countries (geography, history, politics) is generally much poorer. (high confidence, highly controversial)
  11. Patriotism is more wide-spread, more frequently expressed and more strongly felt. (high confidence, somewhat controversial)

Political life:

  1. There are more elected (as opposed to appointed) public officials and elections occur at higher frequencies. (high confidence, uncontroversial)
  2. Personal political opinions are more frequently expressed in public. For instance, pumper stickers with political messages are a much more common sight. (medium confidence, somewhat controversial)
  3. Political polarization is more profound. (medium confidence, somewhat controversial)
  4. There are more prohibition and warning signs on the streets as well as in public and private buildings and facilities. (low confidence, highly controversial)
  5. There are more local political initiatives  such as petitions, awareness campaigns, fund raising events etc. (medium confidence, somewhat controversial)

Ein Hauch von Ökonomik: Tote Hose

Es geht nicht darum, dass wir Konformisten besonders stil- oder modebewusst sind. Wir wissen einfach nur, was sich gehört. Und ganz sicher nicht gehört es sich, mit einer Jogginghose in der Öffentlichkeit rum zu laufen oder sie gar in der Arbeit anzuziehen. Zuhause kann jeder machen was er will. Und für den Sport ist es ja auch ok. Aber wieso anderswo?

Zum einen, weil es ein freies Land ist – angeblich. Zum anderen, weil es bequem ist. Zwei gute Gründe, uns ein wenig mehr in Toleranz zu üben. Tatsächlich könnte uns die Bequemlichkeit der Jogginghose ein wenig entspannter machen und vielleicht sogar produktiver – insbesondere verglichen mit Anzug, Bluse, Hemd und Krawatte. Aber um Tatsachen und Sachlichkeit geht es uns hier gar nicht.

Unsere Abneigung, die Verurteilung und der Scham ergeben sich nicht aus Überlegungen der Effizienz oder des körperlichen Wohlbefindens. Tatsächlich ist es wohl eine verinnerlichte soziale Norm – eine Regel, welcher die Metamorphose zur subjektiven Präferenz gelang. Seinen Präferenzen zu folgen, ist dann durchaus rational und durchaus Kern mikroökonomischer Lehre. Soweit scheint unsere Intoleranz kurzfristig dann doch wieder sachliche Legitimität zu besitzen.

Mittelfristig ließe sich eine erlernte Präferenz wohl auch wieder verlernen. Es war nicht unbedingt der Konservatismus, der unserer Gesellschaft den Fortschritt brachte. Konservativ wirkt es aber, wenn eine Präferenz auf einer anerzogenen und unhinterfragten Gewohnheit fußt, deren vorrangiger Zweck wohl ist, einen gewissen in Redewendungen gepackten Schein zu wahren. Kleider machen Leute. Leute sollen was aus sich machen. Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen. Die von einer Jogginghose ausgestrahlte Bequemlichkeit passt da nur schwer ins Bild.

Natürlich wissen wir, dass bequeme Kleidung in einem Großteil der Berufe kaum negativen Einfluss auf unsere Performance hätte. Doch es ist eine Spielregel in einem Spiel, in dem es oft weniger um die tatsächliche Leistung geht, als um die Verpackung derselben. Unsere Verpackung spielt dabei eine wesentliche Rolle. Und weil auch wir weiterhin eine angemessene Rolle spielen wollen, sind wir Konformisten uns auch weiterhin zu bequem, uns für mehr Bequemlichkeit einzusetzen.