We’ve all heard of self-fulfilling prophecies. What about self-canceling ones? Nate Silver describes one such example in The Signal and The Noise:
“There are two major north-to-south routes through Manhattan: the West Side Highway, which borders the Hudson River, and the FDR Drive, which is on Manhattan’s east side. Depending on her destination, a driver may not strongly prefer either thoroughfare. However, her GPS system will tell her which one to take, depending on which has less traffic – it is predicting which route will make for the shorter commute. The problem comes when a lot of other drivers are using the same navigation systems – all of a sudden, the route will be flooded with traffic and the ‘faster’ route will turn out to be the slower one.”
One part I left out mentioned how GPS’s were coming into vogue. This book was published in 2012. Google Maps and Waze are now household names. While adoption seemed to have changed since the book’s publication, the self-canceling predictions steadily chug along. One could argue that they are getting worse.
I found a piece written earlier this year by Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal that explored this problem of mapping app congestion in California. (here) Madrigal laid out a point I hadn’t thought of when dealing with this issue. It is outlined in the opening of the article:
“In the pre-mobile-app days, drivers’ selfishness was limited by their knowledge of the road network. In those conditions, both simulation and real-world experience showed that most people stuck to the freeways and arterial roads. Sure, there were always people who knew the crazy, back-road route, but the bulk of people just stuck to the routes that transportation planners had designated as the preferred way to get from A to B.
Now, however, a new information layer is destroying the nudging infrastructure that traffic planners built into cities. Commuters armed with mobile mapping apps, route-following Lyft and Uber drivers, and software-optimized truckers can all act with a more perfect selfishness.
In some happy universe, this would lead to socially optimal outcomes, too. But a new body of research at the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies suggests that the reality is far more complicated. In some scenarios, traffic-beating apps might work for an individual, but make congestion worse overall. And autonomous vehicles, touted as an answer to traffic-y streets, could deepen the problem.”
A more perfect selfishness. If you think about what navigational apps do, it makes perfect sense: get me to where I want to go as fast as possible. When you have a mass of people operating from this line of thinking with app in tow, congestion is bound to escalate. Finding the quickest route becomes a self-canceling prophecy.
Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, suggested that, according to Madrigal, “the apps should spread out drivers on different routes intentionally, which would require collaboration among the mapping apps.” Such a solution seems counter-intuitive, not only for business but on an individual level. Why should I take this longer way to help collective traffic flows? Just give me the quickest route already.
But underpinning this solution is a different perspective on societal and individual behavior – one that could apply to other aspects of our lives beyond navigating traffic. Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer expound upon such a perspective in their wonderful book The Gardens of Democracy:
“So, for instance, when you are cut off in traffic and feel the chemical rush of road rage, play out two scenarios. The first is the commonly expected one, in which the rest of your drive is dedicated to exacting revenge against the offending driver or to paying his ruthlessness forward and cutting off another driver.
The alternative scenario is one in which you catch yourself and choose not to compound one person’s discourtesy with your own. Here, you recognize that if you make the small decision to let drivers into traffic, even if it feels like an affront to your dignity, then other people will do the same.
Because the first scenario is indeed the common one, and everyone assumes its rules are the rules of the freeway, gridlock and awful traffic james are the inevitable result. But when we let the second scenario play out, traffic flows more smoothly. Gridlock does not occur. We get where we want to get faster.
This is not just parable. It is hard science. People who study complex adaptive systems – using computer models of traffic going along two axes (north-south and east-west) – can demonstrate and compare the effects of these two scenarios. Lesson one: others will act the way you act. Lesson two: when you act in a pro-social way, the net result for you and everyone else is better.
This may seem counterintuitive, the notion that slowing down gets you there faster, that to yield now is to advance later. The reason, again, is our ingrained and too-narrow idea about what constitutes our self-interest. In a one-time transaction with someone who won’t exist after the transaction (and here, we are describing the parameters of neoclassical economics), you might rightly think that screwing that person is the best way to achieve your own interest. At a minimum, you’d be safe to think you could get away with it. You would think that someone else’s problem is someone else’s problem.
If, however, we allow for the possibility that the other person in the transaction may still exist after the transaction, then we think differently. If we allow for the possibility that the other person will not only reciprocate […] but will also carry your behavior virally to others, then we must act differently. If we allow for the possibility that someone else’s problem is eventually your problem too, then we must act differently.
This possibility is called real life.”