Game theory and the horrendous driving habits of South Africans

Oh, to live in a city that has lots of jobs and there is no traffic, what a wonderful thing that would be.  I find more and more people in interviews these days have specific requests about how far they are willing to travel.  It makes my life very difficult, because I cannot predict where potential clients will need us to provide a service.

But I do sympathize with the sentiment, because traffic is the bane of working in Gauteng.  I saw this video about how South Koreans behave when there is an accident in a tunnel.

Have a look at this video on YouTube. If we were smart, this would be our reaction to an accident.

But no, this is not what we do in South Africa.  Us here in Gauteng, when traffic starts slowing down on the highway, our reaction is to quickly fill up and block the emergency lane as fast as possible.  Depending on who you are, you do this for one of three reasons:

  1. You believe you are special and your appointment is more important than that of anyone else, so obviously you deserve to drive past everyone else in the emergency lane and bypass this traffic mess.  You probably drive a BMW.
  2. You are a minibus taxi, and so have a busload of paying passengers that have places to be, and so it is your responsibility to them to get out of this traffic mess as soon as possible, and thus you drive in the emergency lane.
  3. You are a generally above average angry person, who will be damned if you are going to allow these idiot taxi drivers or these megalomaniac BMW drivers to pass you by in the emergency lane.  So obviously you move into the emergency lane to block them all.

So what is the difference here between South Koreans and South Africans?  It’s simple, South Koreans understand game theory.

Game Theory – the normal form

You can read up on game theory on Wikipedia, it’s the stuff that excited John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind so much that he won the Nobel Prize for his famous Nash Equilibrium. Let me give you the short form.


Two people compete against each other, each making choices that will increase their own payoff and possibly decrease their opponent’s payoff. In the game, as in life, you want to get the best deal you can, giving you the most reward, or payoff.  The grid above shows the choices the players can make, and the reward they will get given their choice and their opponent’s choice.  So for example, if Player 1 chooses Up (whatever that means, it’s not important), she can get either 4 (a good result) or -1 ( a bad result) depending on what Player 2 does.  If Player 2 chooses Left, then it’s good for Player 1 who get a reward of 4, and Player 2 gets a reward of 3.  Win-win we would normally say.  But if Player 2 chooses right, then both players get a reward of -1, a loose-loose situation.  So why would Player 2 choose to go Right if choosing Left is such a good deal for both players?  Because Player 2 might just be a risk taking greedy bastard, who is not happy to get less than Player 1.  He hopes Player 1 chooses to go Down, so he can get a reward of 4 by going Right.  And maybe Player 1 understands that Player 2 is a greedy risk taking bastard who will probably choose to go Right, and therefore rather chooses to go Down, because at worst case if she makes that choice she looses nothing (reward = 0) or best case she gets 3.

In the movie A Beautiful Mind, John explained it as follows:  We sit in a bar, two pals having a drink.  In walks two girls, one beautiful and one a little average.  If we both go for the beautiful girl, the other girl is left alone.  She is used to this and quickly gets bored and probably offended and leaves.  Nobody gets to kiss her.  While the beautiful girl will probably not kiss either of us anyway.  So we both loose.  But if we are smart, and we both go for the average girl, she will enjoy the compliment so much someone is bound to get lucky.  And the beautiful girl will find this situation strange and a bit of a challenge, and the other guy will also get lucky.  Win-win for all!

You think this does not make sense?  You think people aren’t risk taking greedy bastards?

Bring in the traffic!

Game theory and traffic choices

You don’t always know what other players are going to do.  If you think of traffic, the backup might be 2 kms ahead or behind you.  You cannot see or control the actions of the other drivers so far away from you, be they minibus taxi drivers, BMW drivers, anger management patients, or joe average.

South Korean traffic choices

For some reason, South Korean drivers think “Let us all stop, make space for the emergency vehicles and wait for them to quickly get here and clean this up.  Then we all get going to our appointments.”  They understand that if they all choose the (0,0) outcome, they are all in it together and will all be going again in the shortest time.  Nobody gains anything, but they don’t loose anything either.

South African traffic choices

And we..we think “These idiots, I’m going to get one up on them and be the first into the emergency lane.  I’ll pass them all by, and they can eat my dust while they sit here in this mess the whole day…whaaahaahaaha!”  And I’m guessing about a third of the drivers on the road are in the in one of the three groups above (taxi, BMW, angry) and so quickly fill up the emergency lane.  And now we are all in the (-1,-1) result, not moving because the emergency lane and all other lanes are blocked.  Emergency vehicles cannot get to the problem to help or clean up the mess.

And we all sit in this mess for hours, twice a week…all because South Africa has one of the worst math scores in the world and only had to get 20% for functional maths to pass our matric.

And don’t you know it, game theory was part of the 80% we did not study.


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