Saturday, January 07, 2006

Prisoner’s Dilemma

How in the world does the Prisoner’s Dilemma game theory relate to Houston traffic jams? And cooperating with other freelancers or ad agencies on a client project?

Oh-so-familiar scene yesterday: bumper-to-bumper coming back to the office from a meeting. A 24-mile cross-town trip that took an hour and a half in the late afternoon – I made virtually the same trip in 20 minutes at 11PM last evening.

Patience and politeness are the keys to surviving Houston t-jams. Despite the potential for anger and frustration, the drivers around me were courteous (mostly), refrained from blocking intersections (in the main), let other drivers squeeze in front of them when the lanes narrowed (generally).

It wasn’t ‘til this morning that I realized Houston drivers are pretty good at playing the Prisoners’ Dilemma. Click above to read the Wikipedia article about it. Briefly though, two prisoners can gain better jail sentences if they cooperate than if they rat each other out – even though ratting out is the most common and self-interested result, and one prisoner goes free.

By chance, I have read about this zero-sum game in two different novels this week. Bright and early today, I found a fine description of its traffic application in one of them, the 2004 Kim Stanley Robinson book Forty Signs of Rain. One of the main characters is stuck on the Washington, DC, Beltway:

“By and large Beltway drivers were defectors. In general, drivers on the East Coast were less generous than Californians, Frank found. On the West Coast they played tit for tat, or even firm but fair, because in moved things along faster…and so in California cars in two merging lanes would alternate like the two halves of a zipper, at considerable speed, everyone trusting everyone else to know the game and play it right.”

Houstonians, I think, make the same kind of choices in traffic back-ups, generally cooperating out of some instinct that “if we all could just get along,” we’d move faster and generally do despite the horrible traffic. (Except for the bubbas in giant pickups who cut out of the lanes and across the boundary strips to reach a sort of freedom on the access roads.)

Transfer this example to competing ad agencies or freelancers who are teamed on the same client project. If you play the zero-sum game and betray your team-mates, you will do better. You will get more than your share of the work, more of the budget…or even all of it. The other guy (or gal) is the loser, cut out of the opportunity to contribute value and earn a fair share of the money.

At some point, this is going to catch up with you. You will finally run across a client who doesn’t like this kind of behavior and won’t reward it. You will become known as a selfish SOB who doesn’t play well with others. You may make more in the short term but, as Roger Edmonson puts it, “Pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered.” Eventually.

Oh yes, this is goody-two-shoes stuff. And we all know a lot of practitioners who have retired to their Galveston beach homes or Hill Country hideaways behaving just this way. But if reputation is one of the things you’re selling (as a freelancer), then fairness and amiability will guide your actions. Cui bono? Who benefits? The client does. Maybe you do, too. Happy Saturday.

© Photographer Sparky 2000 Agency

1 comment:

Susan Kirkland said...

If you think the zipper effect is fast in Houston, you oughta see it in Toronto. Man, those cars know the game.