A cup of coffee, a blow up doll, and some functionally unpleasant commuters

Die hard rational choice social scientists are often puzzled when they see people making less than optimal decisions. For example, it is hard to explain why people choose to pay the cost of punishment and make themselves worse off just so that they can punish someone who acted unfair or against the rules. I came across an example of this in yesterday’s Washington Post when a reporter published a story about a little known short cut near the Dulles Airport. According to the reporter, drivers normally sit in traffic, moving slowly, on a toll road as they drove passed the airport, but they could avoid the traffic and save time and money by taking the public access road through the airport. The only problem is that the public access road is only meant for airport traffic. It is against the “rules” to drive on it unless you are utilizing the airport’s services or are have a passenger with you during rush hour. People have found creative ways around these rules, like buying a cup of coffee from the sole gas station in the airport or driving with a blow up doll in the passenger seat. However, these methods are not exactly seen as legitimate ways to get around the rules. The "right" thing to do is to stay on the toll road and not cut through unfairly through the airport road.

More after the jump….

Now if the reporter was a rational person who knew about this alternative route, why would he tell others about it? The reporter could use this route and save himself time and money. But by reporting about it, everyone else would know about it and take the route as well; eventually the route would become congested and timely to take, and ultimately the reporter would no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of knowing the little known secret.

Apparently the reporters at the Post felt it was their "duty" to report this story, because it is the job of newspapers to report about people scamming the system. Some commuters praised the post for exposing the “cheaters”; however, there were some commuters who took the route who were pretty upset about the secret being exposed.

So how do social scientists explain this type of behavior? Dr. William Heller and Dr. Katri Sieberg have a series of papers examining this type of behavior, coining the phenomenon the “Functional Unpleasantness Factor” (for more information, see their paper in the June 2008 edition of Public Choice). Using evolutionary game theory, they argue that having cheaters who punish in a society (Functionally Unpleasant types) is actually beneficial to the society because it makes it easy for Fair players (who do not punish) to continue to exist in a society amongst cheaters. In this case, the people that stayed on the toll road would be the fair players. The people who took the airport road and were angry that the secret was leaked are the cheating players. If the reporters of the Washington Post actually took the route but were publishing the article to punish people who took the route as well, they would be the Functionally Unpleasant people. Heller and Sieberg have expanded their analysis of these types of situations and demonstrated that even in a society with no fair players, cooperation is possible as long as Strategically Unpleasant actors exist who cooperate when the punishment for defecting is costly.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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