Thursday, March 04, 2004

Theories of Punctuality

I love it when economists show up sociologists. Alex points to a seemingly good example: why do different cultures have different attitudes toward punctuality? The sociologists’ explanation appeals to “national personality,” religion, etc. The economists’ explanation relies on simple game theory. Arrival-time behavior is a kind of coordination game: you want to arrive at the same time the other guy does, and he wants to arrive at the same time you do. In this kind of game, there exist multiple equilibria, all of them viable (though not necessarily all desirable). Alex’s analogy to left-versus-right-side driving is excellent: both left-side driving and right-side driving are equilibria of the system, so there’s no particular reason to predict one equilibrium over the other.

Economists: 1
Sociologists: ½

Why am I willing to give the sociologists half a point? Because Alex’s analogy also illustrates a problem with the pure game-theoretic explanation. Although it explains why we can observe different equilibria, the theory tells us very little about why one equilibrium happens and the other does not. Why do the British and Japanese drive on the left, while Americans and French drive on the right? Yes, both left and right are equilibria, but why did some cultures end up in one and some cultures in the other? Random chance is one explanation, but legislative decree (as in Alex’s Swedish example) is another. So the antiseptic game theory model tells us just enough to indicate more historical and cultural research may be required. And the same goes for punctuality: the game theory explains why it makes sense that we’d observe different norms, but it doesn’t tell us why the punctuality norm occurred in the places that it did. Random chance might explain the pattern – it was just an accident that Latin American countries happened to evolve a lateness norm – but then again, maybe something else was at work. Maybe influential people at some point in Spanish history had a propensity for lateness, and their activities created the focal point around which others’ expectations formed. In short, an economic theory that predicts multiple equilibria doesn’t shut the door to sociological explanations – it opens it.

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