Dec. 12th, 2007

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Ryan, Lori's friend who is now working at Bridgewater Capital in Stamford, made a very interesting comment when we were sitting around ordering tapas. He said that when he went out with people from work, this process of collective ordering never happened. "Food just got ordered," he said. And it's funny, because it was what I was thinking but just couldn't put my finger on. The biggest culture shock of my vacation was a movement from a top-down decision making process/environment to a communal or, as I kept thinking about it, a consensus based decision making process.

When I hang out with friends from work, the decision making tends to happen before we ever get out the door and it's done on an opt-in/opt-out basis. I'll call up a friend from work and say "I'm looking at going for Ethiopian food this weekend; you want to come with?". The implied question: would you like to get Ethiopian food [yes/no]. At the outset, there's kind of a broad expectation of what's going on. A bunch of us get to the restaurant and the first question is some variation on "family style or no?" If there's a bunch of people, mostly family style but excepting a couple of people is to be expected. If there are basically no dishes everyone wants to try, we go single plates. Consensus is maintained in the process, but mostly through giving numerous opportunities to opt-out with no social cost as the event goes on.

It's never stated explicitly, but the underlying mechanic is that someone is in charge. Someone suggests the cuisine, someone suggests the restaurant, someone suggests an ordering style, and other individuals either voice concerns or tacitly approve. (Approve through their silence, for those unfamiliar with the phrase. It's a good one.) It feels to me like when you get an assignment from your boss at work, you either jump to it or you express concerns at that point. I guess it's that I frequently assume when I'm surrounded by smart people that if one of them holds a strong opinion on a topic I'm indifferent to, I defer to them. They care more, they've probably given it more thought, etc. I'm not saying this is a 100% rule, but it feels logical to me.

Now, increase the social cost to opting out but maintain the importance of consensus. "We're all going to a bar, and you're coming whether you like it or not." It's now critically important for it to be the bar that you like. You want the drink that you want. You need to leave when you need to leave. Right? As this sense of "we" is imposed on you by your lack of opt-out option, you have to ratchet up the sense of buy-in to the group decision. But this can become complicated. The more people you have, the more difficult it is to pick one outcome that satisfies all of them.

This brings me to another problem. I'm pretty sure it's from The Paradox of Choice. There are two kinds of decision-makers on any given topic. There are "maximizers" and "satisficers". A maximizer wants the best car. He's going to look at all the cars on the market, optimize them over gas mileage, safety rating and price, pick the best location for pickup, and empirically determine the best color for picking up girls. A satisficer's mantra is "Is it good enough?" She'll try out a couple of different places, test drive a couple of different cars, and decide on one.

Introduce maximizers and satisficers to the last example. The more maximizers you're ordering with, the more likely you are that one person will say (implicitly, usually not out loud) "That's pretty good, but we could do better". Instead of the rest of the table saying "You know what, get whatever you want for yourself, Max [as our maximizer will be called for the rest of this example], but leave us out of it", the rest of the table does not want to be seen as excluding Max and Max does not want to appear anti-social. Plus, Max benefits from tasting many more dishes than he could order on his own, so he doesn't want to opt out. Imagine now that we have Max and Maxine, each of whom like different dishes.

Using a concept from computation here, think about what happens to the difficulty of an optimization as the number of choices grows. It's obvious for any group that increases the number of choices makes the decision harder, but increasing the number of choices for someone attempting to maximize makes the decision exponentially harder.

You might think I'm shooting myself in the foot pointing this out, but the more maximizers you add shrinks the universe of acceptable choices. Max doesn't want any fish dishes, Maxine is a non-drinker and won't have anything cooked in wine. Less choices, so better! What's the cost? Time and energy. XKCD, do my work for me! Picking out the best option takes time. A lot of time sometimes. In Boiler Room, they talk about "starting from yes". Ben Affleck gives the speech to his new charges about asking questions you know will get yes answers because they lead to more yes answers. If the implicit question is "Is this the best menu for me", you're starting from no. If the implicit question is "Is there enough stuff I like on this menu", you're starting from yes.

Discussing this problem with Katy earlier gave another interesting situation in collective decision making somewhat different from those above. Basically, it's the "I don't know, what do *you* want to do" scenario. When n gets big enough ("We can go anywhere for dinner"), it becomes one person throwing out ideas and other people shooting them down -or- nobody throwing out ideas and everyone just sitting there.

(I just noticed number of choices above is kind of ill defined. If the menu is n items long and we plan to order k of them allowing repeats, I would say that increasing n makes the problem much more difficult for maximizers and about the same for satisficers and that increasing k makes the problem more difficult for both. Though, I just did thought experiments for those, and I could actually see it going either way for satisficers on both cases. If n increases, a satisficer who didn't see anything good on the menu before could see a good new item. If k increases, a satisficer whose favorite dish didn't get ordered before can suggest it.)

So here's the tapas scenario. 12 of us go to a restaurant to get tapas. The party is no less than 1/3 maximizers, it's a birthday party (a traditionally bad opt-out situation), n is large (Tapas places have a big menu) and k is large (Tapas dishes are small). How do we solve this problem? Our actual solution: split into two groups. Although, God help me if getting people to move down so that people could sit with who they were ordering with wasn't a problem. It made the problem manageable, or at least moved the noise to a part of the table I wasn't sitting at. Ryan went with the flow for the first round of tapas and picked a dish he really wanted for the second round to eat himself, which was not a problem.

What's the general solution? There isn't one that I can see. Mostly, I just think the question is interesting. The one my family opted for (there are 6 of us: Mom, Dad, me, and my three younger brothers) was generally to stick to a smaller number of vetted options. We had places that we would go for family dinners out and a set menu of family dinners we'd have at home. It kept infighting low at home, but me becoming a foodie seems to be a rebellion from this tradition. Also, decision making was frequently deferred to someone in particular, because it's so-and-so's birthday or because we're in that neighborhood.

I don't know even if the basic idea is sound, but that's what I've been thinking about.

Also, the tapas plates aren't big enough for 12 people to get a taste of every dish. Even if everyone agreed, you couldn't get the dishes all the way around the table.

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