Being late: a dominating strategy

Today I participated in a hiking trip. The organizers set the gathering time to be 9am, but we waited until nearly 10am to finally depart. Then I was thinking: why do people tend to come late?

It is very common for my Hong Kong friends to be late (much less common among my mainland friends). When I asked a friend why she was always late, she said:”I expect others to come late. So why should I come earlier and wait for them?” That makes perfect sense. In a classical game theory setting, the two players are faced with two choices: to be late, or to be punctual.

It is clear to see that whatever the strategy your friend chooses, it works better for you to choose “to be late”(you are better off than your friend if she is punctual, and you are not worse off then her if she is also late). Note that in this game, it is assumed that you won’t receive any punishment if you are late. Your friend may complain a bit, but she is not likely to scold you or to stop contacting you after that. No one of you is the other’s boss. If the two players are principal and agent, and if we further assume a complete contract can be written specifying every condition and the award/punishment to the agent in each condition, then the Pareto optimal strategy set can be achieved.

Now suppose that you and your friend often go out together and you hate to be late. If you are always punctual and she is always late, you might become a “late” person as well, therefore postponing your departure time indefinitely. This repetitive game yields an inferior strategy set for both players, because after the first several rounds, one gets enough information of the other and makes her rational choice accordingly.

Sadly, for people who hold onto their virtue of punctuality, the only solution is to reduce the interaction times with those who are always late.


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