Our latest paper – just published!
In Thomas Schelling’s classic New York game, two people need to pick a particular place in the city to meet the other. They cannot communicate. Because any place is as good as any other, the problem is hard in theory because each tries to outguess what the other is thinking at the same time.
In practice though people are remarkably good at picking the same as others in this example and others that were used in experiments like the one conducted by my PhD supervisor at UEA in the 1990s: Pick a name, a flower, a mountain, a car brand etc – both of you win a prize if you name the same one. The reason is that some options stick out to most people (they are focal points) and provide a solution to converge on.
This simple game has many important real-world applications: what language to speak, measurement or technological standard to adopt, which one among countless social media to use.
I think this game is also a great teaching tool. Students in class have to each write down their chosen location in a given city to meet everyone else. In class I write mine too. I played this in many countries using London as the city. While most do pretty well, every time there are students who write nothing because they are unable to name ANY location (there are apparently university students who cannot name a single place in London). They then complain that the game is unfair because they do not know the city.
My normal reaction is that knowing little about a city can actually help you. Say I didn’t know London well at all, I would likely still be able to name Big Ben as the only place I ever heard of, and pick it. It turns out this is actually a pretty good solution to the problem, and one you arrive at more easily the less you know. For a Londoner, many places stick out in the same way.
To illustrate, in another study, German and American students were asked which U.S. city is bigger, San Diego or San Antonio. Surprisingly, while all Germans got it right, only two-thirds of the Americans did. The Germans simply picked the one they recognised (San Diego) which, for the same underlying reason (city importance), is the bigger one.
The experience in the classroom inspired an experiment we ran along the same lines as others in the past – participants get paid something if they pick they same option in a given category that a random other participant chooses too. But in our experiment, like in the classroom, we didn’t give them a list to choose from. We then paid them for every option in that category that they could name. This was repeated for a number of categories (like English football clubs, European countries, Shakespeare plays, Chinese Zodiac signs, Disney Princesses).
We then measured whether those who knew more category options did better in coordinating. The answer was yes (see diagram above – every dot is a participant). We did a number of tests suggesting that knowing more category options (e.g. being able to name more Shakespeare plays) is associated with knowing more about that category generally (e.g. the content, popularity and unique features of each play), including which sticks out most. This is true even when we control for the participant’s intelligence.
What this means is that my students were right – ignorance is not bliss, at least not here – knowing more enables you to coordinate better with others. According to another study, successfully coordinating with others enhances our sense of social unity, similarity and liking. It seems that it’s possible to hack these important social skills by learning about the things that matter to others: Strategic small talk.