Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Prisoner’s dilemma

One of my favorite topics in economics is game theory. But it’s not like I’m a student of it or anything. I’m just analytical by nature and find myself from time to time applying game theory to everyday life.

For example, the paper towel dispenser in my office presents a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. It’s one of those auto-sensing kind that doesn’t do a very good job of sensing your hand. And a single dispensation of paper towel is inadequate to actually dry two adult hands, so you have to wave your hands under the thing twice.

Which raises the prisoner’s dilemma: do you stand there waving your hands under the thing not once, but twice, and wait for it to dispense? Or when it dispenses the first towel, do you grab it and pull it out further than it will go on its own before tearing it, thereby getting enough paper towel for the job, but in the process risk breaking the machine and making it harder to get a paper towel on subsequent visits?

The Nash Equilibrium in this situation is to pull the towel out and risk breaking the machine. Because I share the office, and other people are doing this. If I’m accelerating the demise of the machine, it’s not by much. So nearly as often as not, that’s what I do. I hate it, but I do it.

Prone as I am to evaluating my life in this way, I’ll often pose hypothetical questions to myself. The situation I consider most often is this: I love to ride my bike, and I love to ski. If I had to choose only one, which?

It would probably be the bike. Probably.

But it would be a decision made with my head and not my heart. Cycling is a three season sport, it’s something I can do right from my driveway, and I can do it every day.

As much as I love to bike, though, I love to ski more. When I was 18 I spent a month backpacking through Europe. My favorite country: Switzerland. Why? Because of the mountains and all the places to ski and hike in them. When I returned home from the trip, having spent the final two weeks in flat parts of Spain, France, and England, I was glad to see the Wasatch again. It was that much better when the first snow of the season fell a few days later.

I spent nine years living away from Utah. Four of them were in the Midwest. The hardest part was being away from the mountains. When we moved to California and then Idaho, it was good to be near mountains again.

Not everyone is like this. My mom has lived near mountains her entire life. She’s currently vacationing in Myrtle Beach, which she does several times a year. She prefers the Ocean.

But my friend Trent, an Officer in the Marine Corps currently stationed pretty much on the beach in Southern California where he can surf almost every day, gets jealous when I send him pictures of a powder day. He’s a mountain person—a skier. He understands.

If you’re a mountain person, you too understand the twinge of regret that I feel as I pull out of the parking garage after work and see daylight. It means the days are getting longer again and winter is waning. Ski season has been great, but it won’t last forever. My bike is neglected and waiting. But the bike misses me more than I miss the bike.


  1. i don't get it. you move your hand under the sensor, it dispenses a paper towel. when the light goes off, you put your hand under there again, and get another paper towel.

    where's the conflict? who has to actually grab the paper towel and yank on it, when you can get another one in like one second?

    you're like the kid in the marshmallow experiment.

    a researcher sits in a room with a young child. he puts a marshmallow on the table (these were simpler times). he says "i'm going to leave the room for 5 minutes. you can eat the marshmallow if you want. but if you DON'T eat it, when i come back, i will give you an entire bag of marshmallows."

    one kid sits perfectly still until the researcher comes back. another squirms and squirms, but succeeds in not eating the marshmallow. another nibbles around the edges of the marshmallow. and the last one has the entire marshmallow in his mouth before the researcher even finishes explaining the terms.

    that's you.

    dude. chill.

  2. OK, First of all, there's no light to indicate when you can wave your hand again. Second, I clearly stated that the sensor doesn't work very well. So it's not like waiting a second and waving again. It's more like you stand there waving, trying not to look ridiculous, wondering if the persnickety machine will dispense first or if your hand will air dry first. So I'm not that kid with the marshmallow.

    Although, in defense of that kid, perhaps he didn't want to eat the entire bag for fear he'd accelerate the risk of diabetes, so he just ate the one. Don't rush to judgement. Sheesh.

  3. marshmallow kid

  4. My favorite study (from those simpler times) is the poor case of "lil Albert". He was just a young kid, less than a year old. They sat him in an empty room and gave him a cute, cuddly rat to p[lay with. He loved it. But later, when he touched the animal a loud, blaring, frightening noise would fill the room, startling lil Albert.

    Eventually he just became terrified of the cute cuddly rat.

    I wonder if he likes marshmallows.

  5. Mark, I'd hassle you except I'm prone to bouts of over-analysis myself.

    Marshmallow Kid is in the vault - don't make me open it.

  6. "Marshmallow kid" is way better than a certain nickname you once had. Think back to your little league football years. I won't publish it on your blog because it would definitely stick.

  7. I don't think I'm smart enough to participate in this conversaton.