Op-Ed: Game Theory and Public Hearings: A Decision Theorist’s Perspective
Monday, December 3, 2012
by Poonam Arora
I went to the public hearing on changing the zoning for Chappaqua Crossings on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as a resident who, having read a little about the potential effects of the rezoning, was concerned enough about the possible impact on Route 117 to want to hear directly from the Developer.
Most of the residents present seemed to share my concerns. As I result I found myself focusing less on the issues and more on the process itself. The researcher in me took over, finding parallels between decision-making research and the interactions between the various parties present at the hearing.
The first parallel was with social dilemmas, situations where the decisions that benefit a decision maker (this can be an individual, an organization, or a community) in the short term end up making everyone worse off in the long run.
The proposed change in zoning creates a situation,where the economic incentives are obvious for the developer and less obvious for the residents. But to the extent that it results in the diversification of the tax base, there is potential for a gain for the town, at least in the short run. This gain however, as is being argued by the opponents of the rezoning, comes with longer term potential costs such as congestion due to additional traffic, changes in the fabric of the town, environmental impact, and perhaps even reducing property values.
I’m not arguing for the validity of this thought process. What struck me was that the likely outcome in a social dilemma when everyone acts rationally to maximize his or her gains, is that we all end up worse off. It’s the Nash Equilibrium in such a game.
Remember the bar scene in The Beautiful Mind? Although the explanation given by Russell Crowe playing John Nash is mathematically incorrect, it’s close enough to make the point. John Nash’s insight is the realization that in a zero-sum game the only outcome that is sustainable over the long term is one where everyone chooses the option that maximizes individual gain, and the whole group ends up worse off.
More recent research however, has found that there is another option – that of creating a cooperative equilibrium, where the act of cooperating to find a joint solution changes the game to a non-zero sum one. We move from the world of win-lose to the world of win-win.
A small experiment illustrates this well – when people are asked to contribute to a pool of money that will be doubled and then shared with everyone in the group (independent of amount contributed), they think of all the reasons they should keep as much of that money as they can, and only a third of the participants contribute anything. After all, they have so many good uses for the money and they’ll get more even if they don’t put in anything.
But when they are told that they are grouped with others for a reason (which can be as arbitrary as sharing the same initials, liking the same modern art painter, being over-estimators when asked to estimate how many dots are on a page, sharing the same group symbol – this is the minimal group paradigm), the percent of people contributing goes up significantly. Very simply put: the former is a case of “us” (or in this case, me) vs. “them” or a win-lose perspective, while the latter is a case of “me” and “us” or a win-win perspective.
One question I asked myself as I was sitting at the Public Hearing and thinking these thoughts was: That sounds great in theory and works in the lab, but how would it work practically?
Having never been to such a gathering before, I was struck by how when the lawyer and architect for the developer presented their plan to the Town Board, they highlighted all the ways in which their proposal met the Board’s requirements (and I think one of them even mentioned how thoughtful the Board was to have put forward those requirements). And yet, when the residents and business owners of Chappaqua spoke, every opinion emphasized the gap between their desires and the proposal.
Was it simply that the Town Board, elected by the townspeople, misunderstood what its electorate wanted? In that case, the answer is simply: Make sure everyone agrees on the requirements. But that didn’t seem to be the entire story.
Might this be due to construal level differences? Bear with me while I go off on another decision-making tangent, but I promise, it will all come together.
We know from research that psychological distance impacts how one thinks of the issue at hand. For example, if you were invited to attend a meeting in Rome this coming summer, you might think about how much fun such a trip might be, perhaps you could take the family along, the food is always so delicious in Italy, and so on.
Your thoughts would focus on the abstract idea of a trip to Rome, all expenses paid. What’s not to like about that! Now, what if the meeting were next week? Well, now you’re likely to think of details like whether your passport is valid, conflicting commitments, baby-sitting arrangements and all the mundane things that might make the trip seem like an onerous chore.
The difference is in the psychological distance where something more distant is dealt with more abstractly (ignoring details) while something in our back yard or in our face is dealt with more concretely (focusing on details).
Having not been there for all the conversations that have occurred vis-à-vis the rezoning, I have to ask whether some of the animosity in the room between the parties was due to the psychological distance from the issue and therefore the nature of the emotional involvement?
I walked out of the hearing marveling at how filled the room was with us-vs.-them views when it this could be (and should be) a conversation among partners with a common goal – to economically and socially benefit Chappaqua.
I doubt that the developer would really be better off in the long run with a reputation for taking advantage of small towns like ours. But that may be too idealistic given the tenor of the conversation at the Public Hearing. Maybe a small step would be to simply find a way for us to create a minimal group paradigm that helps every party approach this discussion as an “us.”
Poonam Arora, a resident of New Castle, is a professor of management at the School of Business at Manhattan College and does research in the area of decision-making.