Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Stag-hunting for commuters

I spotted an article the other day suggesting that commuters needed to learn how to board trains in a fashion that caused least delays, and that this in itself would ease some passenger pain.

Nobody needs to be taught how to wait on a platform in such a way as to allow the flow of disembarking people; basic common sense tells us this. What has broken down in these situations that ruins so many people’s mornings is coordination (with one another, not of our limbs), and cooperation.

Behaviour driven by the ‘every man for himself’ motto only has to be exhibited by a few people, and the cooperative crowd breaks down. I am using ‘cooperative’ here in a philosophical sense as well as a social one. Human beings live in societies, and societies only work if their members act in ways that benefit them as one of a group.

Brian Skyrms explores one form of this kind of cooperation in his book The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure. Briefly, the hunters in a group can choose between hunting a stag together or hunting hares alone. An individual cannot catch a stag by himself, but if enough hunters join in, there will be a lot more meat to go around if they are successful. The same individual might manage to catch a hare on his own, but there are two outcomes: firstly there will be less meat, and secondly he reduces the chances of success for the smaller stag-hunting group. If enough individuals decide to go hare hunting, there won’t even be a stag hunting group, and overall each individual with a hare is less well off.

I’m writing this from a decade-old memory, but that is the gist. We can apply it to the commuters. A few people decide to go their own way, and the whole group is less well off as a result. That is, if a critical mass decide not to cooperate, refusing to standing back from train doors, then cooperation becomes not only pointless but damaging for the rest of us. Like two foolhardy stag hunters setting out without their companions, if two people decide to stand back and allow others to pass them, they’ll never make it onto the train. They’ve ended up with no meat at all because some people went hare-hunting.

I don’t think presenting my fellow travellers with a prĂ©cis of Skyrms’ book is going to improve my mornings. But neither will pointing out to people, as the article attempted to do, that if we all stood back everyone would have a better time. They already know this, at some level. They are already cooperative beings in as much as we live in this society; coordination and cooperation are built into their ways of thinking without them needing to know it. Instead they exercise their individual choice over how to act, and the self-interested decision-making of a few leaves everybody worse off.

That said, even more people would be worse off if all these individuals chose to drive to work rather than fight their way on and off a train. I will try to remember this the next time I am bundled away from the carriage by a series of environmentally-considerate elbows: we are actually coordinating on a higher level to the benefit of the planet.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed thinking about that. It reminded me of the time I spent in Italy where everyone seemed to crowd together. And also (tangentially) at business conferences, in the lobby areas where no body wants to go onto the main room - but eventually a few do, then more, then a rush - so that the last to arrive do so sheepishly.