Thursday, May 08, 2008

'Why we are the way we are'

Bombay always looks beautiful when you're flying over it by night. But yesterday was espacially nice. There was an IPL match going on at D Y Patil stadium and it looked stunning from up there.

I'm still admiring the moving canvas of light, we're minutes away from landing when there's a tinkle. Yes, a mobile phone tinkle. The guy sitting right behind me has his phone on.

My co-passenger and I exchange a horrified glance. The phone continues to tinkle for a while and then stops. The plane lands and we come to a halt. I glance behind and see a youngish Sardar busy gathering his stuff.

"Um.. your phone was ringing some time ago?" I say to him.

"Yeah.. heh heh. I must have left it on."

Wow. You don't look like someone who is flying for the first time.

"If it's any consolation," he adds." I did not take the call".

Okay, so the point is not whether mobile signals really interfere with navigational equipment or not. The fact is, the airlines advise us here in India that this is the case. They have laid down a rule and we need to abide by that.

But Indians and 'respect for rules' are about as likely to be found together as IPL viewers in Fayetteville, Arkansas. And there's an interesting book on this subject which I happened to read recently: 'Games Indians Play' by V Raghunathan.

Raghunathan uses game theory and in particular the prisoner's dilemma toexplain 'why we are the way we are'.

The dilemma illustrates how co-operation always produces the optimal benefit for both individuals. And in the context of choices we have to make in our everyday lives, co-operation is what leads to a 'greater common good' as well.

This para from the book sums up his central argument:
When I jump a queue or a red light, or throw that garbage on the sidewalk, I am taking a rational 'squeal' decision, since it seems to get me ahead of others or make life easier for me. Here I am being privately smart.

But then, as others are no less rational, intelligent and smart, they too start squealing for the same reason and before we know it, we have unruly traffic, filthy streets and stinking urinals. So collectively we are all worse off, just as the two prisoners in the dilemma.

You can read more on why Indians are privately smart and publicly dumb here.

Coming back to the Sardar and his mobile phone. You could argue he was just forgetful but methinks he was too brazen about it and hence I would classify his behaviour in the 'squeal' category. It's just a really dumb squeal because if leaving your phone on is a risk, the squealer would go down with the rest of us.

Sadly one must be political correct in this day and age but it reminds me of a classic joke... And I shall say no more.

On a completely unrelated note...
V Raghunathan used to be a cat finance prof at IIM Ahmedabad and taught me Fin II when I was on campus. I will never forget the day I got an 'A' in one of his quizzes, one of the two awarded in that particular quiz. For a few shining moments I thought I might have a future in finance.

Results of the next quiz came in and the moment passed :)


  1. Played Prisoner's Dilemma in one of our company training sessions.

    Learnt the hard way about trust.

    I try to gather the guts to tell those breaking minor infractions of the law - throwing rubbish, spitting - that they should stop doing so, but both the "mind your business" gene and a certain amount of cowardliness are inhibitors.

  2. Not intending to be rude here, but reading this post reminded me of this post in The Economist that I read sometime ago:

  3. Nice Post !
    You should use an Indian social bookmarking widget like PrachaarThis to let your users easily bookmark their favorite blog posts.

  4. Surprisingly the same thing happened to me on a flight to Melbourne just three days back.

    My flight was via Singapore and the Mumbai-Singapore leg of the journey always has a lot of Indians which tends to result in some funny and thought provoking situations a few times.

    There was this guy sitting next to me, to chronologically list out the events, he came late in the first place and barged through all the other stewards and passengers waiting to put their hand luggage up. Then he got a steward to put up his bag (mind you it wasn't a "bag" bag just a simple plastic bag like you get in shoppers stop) then he sits and suddenly calls the steward again and asks him to get the bag down for him, then after he's finished with that he settles into the seat and takes out his phone and starts dialing people. I was a bit annoyed but thought that he's still within limits to use the phone as the flight hasn't taken off and to my shock this guy keeps talking through the announcement for switching off all electronic devices and all through the take off and then after about three calls once we are comfortable in the air he starts trying to call his wife, fortunately there was no signal and he switches off the phone and dozes off.

    I was more shocked than anything else to see that a lot of us just blatantly chose to disregard rules as if they do not affect us or that we are above them.

    I am embarrassed to say that i did not remind him that he shouldn't be using his phone and i don't think that it would have had any effect.

    This is the "educated" man of India.

  5. Dejavu! It felt I had read this article a few times back, but that wasn't in an indian newspaper.

    Two things stand out:
    1. Your stereoptyping Indians for not abiding by rules: Don't we as a species assert our freedom? Don't we all respond to the carrot and stick approach? Since we are talking airlines, let's look at examples from elsewhere:
    - Save the early morning flights, if you travel in the US, chances are you'll find coffee mugs (often with unfinished coffee), chewed gums, picked noses (yuck!) and a lot of unmentionable in the back pockets.
    - On the flip side, the airlines aren't any better. Air safety norms are routinely flouted not only in india but also in countries like Israel and Belgium. Even rich countries like Norway do that. And need I say about the recent maintainence issues at both Southwest and American?

    The moral of the story: Most people wouldn't follow rules but for strong reasons. If rule aversions go unpunished, it's not the sardarji you should blame but the democratic process (with all its constituents)

    2 Your other point:
    The co-operation always produces the optimal results. The problem of prisoner's dilemma is what we refer to as "unstable equilibrium" in physics. Co-operating would equate to collective good only if EVERY party involves thinks for the group. Even if one party rebels, everyone is screwed. What happens when Prisoner A and Prisoner B stay silent, and the story repeats every six months. One of them would sure be tempted to betray. We aren't machines, and we would could never maintain this unstable equilibrium even if we were to achieve it.

    We survived as a species because we evolved, we adapted and we eradicated (Charles Darwin?). We never co-operated and that's why we succeeded. The whole capitalism is based on the concept that when everyone works on his own interests, it creates results that are in the best interests of the society. Closer home, we know what happened when we were socialists (there emerged a class of bureaucrats who got tempted like one of the prisoners who would have had were the game repeated several times). And switching to a more capitalistic model, we are progressing. Sure, the divide is increasing but the way we evolve is simple - differentiate ourselves from others, assert our superiority and eradicate those who cannot cope.

    And what is the "greater common good" anyways? It depends on how many "commons" you include. The building block is an individual, superceded by a family, superceded by a colony, all the people in the city, the dogs and cats, the chicken and fish, the turkeys and the cows.

    But if we stop fishing and butching chicken, there would be a severe food shortage! Co-operation to succeed requires an equal footing among the parties involved (Prisoner A and Prisoner B belong to the same class - as in they have the exactly same choices). When one is in a different league than the others, co-operation produces different results for different people. They would be acceptable to some, unacceptable to others.

    And even you and me are not alike!

  6. Why to single out a person of a particular sect.
    Surely, you could just have said "a person" to depict your story..
    doesnt potraying a Sardarji flouting the rules say bad things about their community , they being crude and immature!!

  7. an A in a Fin-II quiz! Boy oh boy, that would have been a real sight. Next you will be telling me that you ended up with an A in MANAC!

    But seriously, I still dont understand how the cell phone signals reach 40000ft in the sky to interfere with aircraft communication. But still, wonder if the air-hostess has nothing to say to the sardarji.

  8. I used to get bugged with people leaving cell phones on during flights. But the fact is that there is enough evidence to show that the risk to flight navigation systems from cell phone use is negligible - the problem with cell phones being on is more because a cell phone in an aircraft messes us with the network on the ground - and this can be solved by having a microcell on board as Air France has recently done.

    The other reason not to have cell phones on board is to avoid paining fellow passengers - but frankly that applies as much to trains and buses as to planes

  9. oh mr.youth curry and great sentient being...

    yc (youth curry [guy]), you did not cater for a situation whereby prisoner A and prisoner B collude and both get out scott free :)

    sentient being... we all know that these days the mobiles don't interfere with equipment... if there was a chance of that, then by all means, enforce the rules... but when the rules become old and dated... we *need to exercise our duty of civil disobedience", otherwise progress will never be made.

    i obey traffic lights because i can see that they follow rules designed to stop havoc and accidents... but if you saw a traffic light in the middle of a nowhere near alice springs with no obstructions, clear sight 20km's all around and no other car or anything in sight... would you not cross it?
    what was that.. probably not? well, i can understand that too... but if you then came across 10 meaningless ones just like it... would you not try to push the boundary slowly and eventually break one red light... and if upon breaking you learned that there was no negative effect... and that you also learned that the traffic lights were put there when there was a rail crossing in those parts, but now the train lines even don't exist there, would you not start breaking those lights more often?

  10. Its not just people of a country...its people in general who flout rules...
    I've seen people behave in China and they wouldn't put a foot wrong and against the rules...
    But back home in India, in Australia and in the US...I've seen a much lighter attitude towards rules...
    be it simple stuff like speeding on roads...sticking chewing gums all over the place...
    Or major stuff like using the phone on flights, seat belts etc..
    I guess it must be something to do with democracy and growing up in an environment where you are not told what to do and when to do for every little thing...
    And am sure many would agree..American airports are filthy compared to even their Indian counterparts which although not pretty are a lot cleaner...

  11. I am not a big fan of rules, but if they makes sense I do follow them. Also, the only reason I turn off my cell phone is because I dont want the battery to dry out by the time flight lands.

    I talked to many air hostesses and the "primary" reason they want all electronic equipment to be turned off is so that we give more attention to them, not really because of the electronic flux and air waves.

    If they are upfront about their reasons, then I can be upfront with my cooperation!

  12. i agree with some posts above - especially Amit' should look at some flights in the US and will find that behavior is really the pits.

    Also, what needles me to no extent is the fact that airlines have to lie to us to turn off cell no way do cell phones mess with the navigational equipment - its all bunkum. A plane sweeping low over residential areas and having cellphones on just messes with cellphone networks on the ground - thats all there is to it. So a blind obeying of rules is kind of silly.

  13. Nobody likes being disturbed in public places.I think it would have been the disruption of a silent spell that probably frustrated Rashmi more rather than an Indian (Better to address him like this than what Rashmi chose to)not choosing to abide by the prescribed rules.As responsible citizens, we must ensure our phones are on silent mode in public places.Had that Indian guy's phone been on silent mode, Rashmi wouldnt have even thought about posting it on the blog !!

    And another thing..Why dont you ever reply back to the comments posted by people visiting your blog?

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