One of the happier events of the last week was meeting a young IPS officer who was interested in exploring game theory to deal with city traffic! It felt nice to notice that our governance is not entirely left to 10th fail goons that our political system is swarming with.
Ironically, John Nash, the propagator of game theory died in a car crash last month without giving this a thought, so I am left to speculate over this beautifully simple idea that is useful in understanding human decision-making process.
Game theory is a lot of maths, but not all maths and thus is explicable in simple words. It talks about people working together and taking decisions for a given objective, something that we all do all the time.
It is not difficult to notice that, if you are part of a group, any decision you take will impact not just you but those with you. Those around you may gain or lose from your action. So, if you are not really stupid, you will evaluate each of your decision in terms of how much you gain from it and what it does to the interest of others. This means that each of us will try and optimize or maximize our gain by choosing options that balance out the gain for others. Sounds just like how Indians behave on the roads, isn’t it? So, can game theory tweak the problem?
If you look at our roads, they are not entirely running like a free-market. They have rules, and following or breaking them is the decision that each of us are constantly taking while driving. We have a cultural learning that following rules have no gain while breaking them has. So, we more often opt for this “gainful” decision, and the net result is a traffic chaos that nullifies all the gain. Unfortunately, we have not yet registered this feedback intensely enough to have a shift in our cultural learning of there-is-gain-in-breaking-rules.
The reason behind this lack of learning is, ironically, the traffic police. Presence of traffic police as resolvers of the chaos reduces the loss of the law-breakers. Even if you opt for breaking the law, system is prevented to hit you back with a chaos your action would have caused, making you escape the self-regulation. Game theory works only when you provide equal opportunity to all the players and protect none from the outcome of his/her actions. The systemic backlash is a tool that systems use to regulate behavior of the stake-holders. This feedback based mechanism makes all large systems self-learning. But, with partial imposition of rules through traffic police, we are disallowing the system to self-learn and find its optimization.
An interesting possibility is to remove all the traffic police from a road and study if people find systemic equilibrium after suffering from chaos resulted from rule-breaking. Even if there may be temporary mayhem, it is a possible way to make people start registering chaos as the outcome for rule breaking and learn to change. The same process of learning may be speeded up by setting up traffic lights in a way that the more rule-following side is allowed a longer green-time. Just as people need to learn that rule breaking doesn’t pay, they need to register benefit of following rules.
Our traffic is actually a microcosm of our nation. We have rule breakers prospering and not being hit back either by the law or by the system’s backlash as law is actually preventing natural processes from expression. Unfortunately, opting for jungle raj is not really an option at country level, but it is a genuine possibility to try and experiment with this idea on a city road to see if it can educate our collective psyche.