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.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

Ms. Arora,

I, like so many others, enjoyed hearing you speak @ Tuesday’s meeting.  I do think the Town Board misunderstood what its electorate wanted.  After all, many people, including myself, signed the petition for a supermarket at the old Dag’s spot, and also signed the petition against this 120K retail development @ Chappaqua Crossing.  For the past seven months, I have been advocating sitting down with Summit Greenfield, and talking about a use that is a win for them, and a win for our community.  As someone who has been at odds with them for the past 2 years, I absolutely think we need a different, and better, approach. 

I sincerely hope that Summit Greenfield agrees.

By Rob Greenstein on 12/03/2012 at 8:33 am

Rob - why do you think the Town Board misundrstood the electorate? Who speaks for the electorate- you? Those that spoke at the Board meeting were opposed to Retail at Chapp Crossing. Its always that those opposed are most vocal. I am one of many that thinks this proposal can work. You make the mistake of referencing the petition against retail @ CC. That petition was signed by many that thought a sewage treatment facility, big box stores, fast food, and more were part of this proposal and they are not. I have been following this debate and reading comments posted here and it seems you owe an explanation regarding your role in spreading lies and deceiving community members.
You and others have been hostile to each and every proposal that Summit Greenfield have put forth. After obstructing for years now you want to sit down and talk? Why didn’t you make that offer 2years ago when you criticized and vilified the developer? Unfortunately they now have the upper hand because they will easily be able to demonstrate to a judge that every plan they tried was objected to and they were prevented from properly utilizing their land. And don’t give me Zoning as the reason. Zoning laws are relaxed , changed, modified every day all over the nation, NY state and right here in Chapp.  When the soldier runs out of bullets he wants to talk peace.
What talks will satisfy NIMBYs? They want nothing built. Hypothetically what if a big commercial tenant was found and described as follows- 7000 employees, night shift, truck deliveries, workers driving to the site, vendors, cafeteria supplies delivered daily, maintenence around the clock including night. You know that the NIMBY people would object to increased traffic, truck noise, safety issues, congestion on 117 and Greeley- right. The hypothetical I just described is exactly what Readers Digest was all. To put it another way , if Readers Digest should show up tomorrow these same people would object! Yeah - let’s sit down and talk.

By Electorate on 12/03/2012 at 11:51 am

Electorate, how many different names are you gonna use?!?!?”

By Rob Greenstein on 12/03/2012 at 2:42 pm

Mr Greenstein- that’s a weak and feeble attempt to deflect from the central issue regarding your credibility. Many people have asked you (perhaps some using different names as you suggest) who wrote the petition and why you would circulate knowing its full of lies. You present yourself as a knowledgable and proactive community activist on multiple local issues but you destroyed your credibility with the Chapp Crossing Retail opposition petition which falsely indicated that the CC site would include big box retailers, sewage treatment plant, neon, signs and labeled it a strip mall. You wrongly stir up emotions and garnered signatures by deceiving the very people in our community you pretend to represent. I don’t care for Summit Greenfield either but I must decide based on facts. I respectfully join others and would like you to explain who manufactured the lies in the petition and why on earth would you support and distribute knowing that its contents were wrong. Without some reasonable explanation it will be difficult to trust you and your facts again. Sincerely, resident ( my one and only name)

By Resident on 12/04/2012 at 7:19 am

As head of the Chamber of Commerce I think your heart is in the right place which is to protect the merchants that are part of your organization.  But that does not lead to an impartial discussion of this proposal.  You know as well as I do that no matter what CC proposes as far as retail, you will oppose it.  Whether you will admit to that is another story.  You have a vested interest in making sure that this iteration does not go forward.  Many in the community are tired of the high taxes while this property does not pull its weight due to underutilization.  Asking CC to come to a Commerce sponsored meeting is just asking them to go into the Lion’s Den.  They will just be admonished for the idea and subjected to hostility the whole meeting. 

I honestly don’t know if this is a workable solution for the property but am willing to hear more about it.  I know that I am not willing to summarily dismiss it at this point.

I also think that the amount of misinformation being disseminated is alarming and counterproductive.

By To the chase on 12/04/2012 at 10:01 am

Ms. Arora:

Game theory has a proviso:  rational players. Why would you suppose that SG is necessarily rational. Has greed never been a human impetus that may obscure reason?  (Aesop’s moral of the dog and the bone?) You state:

“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.”

Even if that were true, how can you impute your wisdom to all players? Are all players necessarily rational? Do they necessarily always know what is in their best interest, especially long term?  How about Madoff?

That unfounded supposition needs to be verified.  Have you looked at their history?  Do you know the history of Summit Greenfield in Chappaqua?  Actually, their history proves otherwise

They bought a commercial property and then promptly petitioned for rezoning to residential in order to build 345 condos and townhouses.

Their investment, would have yielded a far greater profit than if it remained commercially zoned.  They called it CHAPPAQUA Crossing to reap the benefit from the school system and the general Chappaqua cachet as shrewd marketing strategy.  They attempted to present it as an elder community, 55 and over, and made many attempts to claim there would not be many children because that would be a tax debit to the town that other households would have to pick up.  Their claim was quickly debunked and the facts were verfied that an elder community was legally impossible.

Game theory works in the particular case when you plug in the accurate facts of the actual situation and then apply the game formulae, as Wittgenstein will tell you.


By Really, Ms. Arora on 12/06/2012 at 9:09 pm

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