Saturday, 20 July 2013

What do NIMBYs, the British Open Golf, the battle of the sexes, and the availability heuristic have in common?

It is the weekend of the British Open Golf Championship. And yesterday there was a fair amount of discussion about slow play. Slow play is annoying in golf because one player taking their time holds up everybody else on the course. The referees have the power to counteract this by putting a player on the clock. Which basically means the player will be timed and penalized for taking too long. Yesterday, the referees put lots of players on the clock and penalized Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama. A similar thing happened at this years Masters Championship where 14 year old Chinese Golfer Guan Tianlang was penalized.  
    What interested me about the slow play discussion was the reaction of the players and commentators. All were in agreement that play had been to slow and that 'something needs to be done about it'. But mention a name, such as Matsuyama, and all were also in agreement that 'he was treated very harshly'. That sounds contradictory. There were only 40 or so players on the course at any one time. If there was slow play, they cannot all be innocent!
      This failure to see the aggregate as a sum of its parts is an example of NIMBYism. This acronym was coined to capture the common reaction of residents to a proposed new development. Everyone thinks we need more affordable houses, a road by-pass, a bigger airport, better train links. Everyone also says Not In My Back Yard. But, if it is in no one's back yard then it is clearly not going to happen.
       Why causes NIMBYism? Its partly about fairness and strategy. The NIMBY game is essentially a battle of the sexes game like that in the matrix below. In the standard version of the battle of the sexes husband and wife need to independently decide what to do at the weekend (think of them at their desk at work deciding whether or not to order the ticket). The options are ballet and football. They want to coordinate on the same option but the husband prefers ballet and the wife prefers football (this is not quite the standard version!). So, if they both choose ballet the husband gets payoff 2 and the wife a payoff of 1, etc.

        The battle of the sexes is an asymmetric coordination game with two pure strategy Nash equilibria - they both go to the ballet, or they both go to the football. The difficulty is how to coordinate - the husband would prefer the ballet and the wife would prefer football. Solving this coordination problem is by no means easy. (As an aside, an interesting study by Holm showed that the men are more likely to get what they want.)
           To relate the battle of the sexes to NIMBYism we need to re-frame the game to something like that below. There are two players out on the golf course, Adam and Barry. Play is slow and its only going to get quicker if one of them speeds up. The problem is coordinating on who should speed up. Now you might disagree that this game is a good representation of the slow play game - you might say they should both speed up, or that Adam would be at a bigger disadvantage if he speeds up and Barry does not. I could answer those concerns directly: for instance, Golf is a competition and so there are good reasons why they will not both speed up. The key point, however, is that even in this ideal world, where we only need one player to speed up for everyone to benefit, there are still good reasons why things are not going to work. Both players would rather the other speeds up.

          The battle of the sexes does, therefore, nicely capture the idea of  NIMBYism. Everyone would be better off if people coordinate - play speeds up and the new houses are built. But, no one wants it in their back yard. Adam doesn't want to be the one that speeds up, or has the new houses built next to his home. We can easily end up with zero.
          Another important component to NIMBYism is the availability heuristic. This heuristic says that things seem more important the more easily they are available in our memory. When we think of abstract concepts like a course full of golfers, or a city development, the availability heuristic is not switched on because it is not something we can easily relate to. When we think of a specific concept like a Japanese golfer or a person's back garden the heuristic is switched on. We think how frustrated the Japanese golfer must be to receive a penalty, or how angry the homeowner is to loose his peace and quiet. In the context of the battle of the sexes game this means that when we look at a good outcome we focus on the fact that one player gets less than the other. This seems unfair and we easily relate to it. We overlook the fact that both players are better off than they would have been otherwise. 
          Once we recognize the causes of NIMBYism it becomes much easier to solve. Crucial is the framing of the problem. Adam needs to be convinced that he can gain by speeding up. Sure, Barry gains more, but let's focus on the gain to Adam. We also need to overcome the availability heuristic. One way to do this is to personalize the more abstract concept by, for instance, focusing minds on the annoyance of those golfers held up by slow play. The prescription, therefore, as often in behavioral economics, is to focus minds on the gains realized and the losses avoided.

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