Watching Watchers Waiting

Driving a car is serious business.  Seriously!  The car costs money.  The gas costs money.  And the insurance costs even more money.  The last thing I want is to get into an accident.  Not only is there that whole “accident” part (your leg isn’t broken, that’s just a flesh wound!) but the insurance company is going to jack up their rates enormously.  I figure that’s why they taught me defensive driving back in the day.

As I understand it, defensive driving means everyone else is crazy except me.  If I’m in the roundabout and I’m looking to stick my car into the whirlpool, I’ve got to assume all of those other cars are net cases.  So I’m going to need a good wide space before I go sticking my nose into the fray.

And here’s where the fun behavior part comes in.  I already know that I drive perfectly.  I know that because I drive defensively.  Everyone else is crazy, therefore I’m the only sane driver, therefore I am perfect.  I like this conclusion.

The problem I have is with watching the person in front of me.  I watch the cars go round and round, and the person in front of me waits and waits.  Wait!  There’s an opening wide enough for two cars to enter the roundabout!  What does the car in front of me do?  Wait.  Waits some more.

Now there’s another space, not quite as big as before, but more than enough.  “Move!” I think to myself.  “Drive!”  This one I might say out loud, along with a few choice words.  Still, the car in front of me waits.

This goes on for about a year.  Until, magic moment!, there’s an opening.  It’s not even as big as the first two, yet the car in front of me starts moving, faster, faster!, and then it’s gone!  It has easily merged into traffic and is gone from my sight.  Whew.  Now it’s my turn, and as we already know, I do it perfectly.

Here’s the other fun part of this particular behavior.  I enjoy watching this person implement their own objective function in real time, even if they don’t know it.  I don’t actually enjoy watching them, but I do think about this in the car.  What can I say?  I’m weird that way.

As this person is waiting, they see a space.  This is what they are thinking (dramatization):  “Oh, there’s a space, but driving my car into that space is a risk.  That risk comes at a cost.  The other side of that cost is how long I have waited.  I have not waited very long, so the cost of the risk outweighs the cost of my time.  So I think I’ll wait a while longer.”

Clock ticks, my foot taps on the accelerator and brakes, and their brain starts talking again.  It says:

“Oh, there’s another space.  This one isn’t as big as the first one, so it costs more to get in there in terms of risk.  I still haven’t waited a long time, so my cost of waiting is still lower than my cost of getting my car moving.  So I’ll wait a bit more.”

Clock still ticks.  This time my fingers are gripping the wheel and I’m thinking evil thoughts.  Wait, there’s another opening!  Back inside their head…

“Oh, another opening!  It looks pretty tight, so the risk is even higher than before.  But now I’ve waited a long time, and so my cost of waiting is also very high.  This time my cost of waiting is much higher than the risk of moving my car, so I will take the chance.”

Hooray!  I watch them move their $!@#! car, and immediately slide into traffic without waiting at all.  My cost of waiting also increased because of the person in front of me.  And I watched the person in front of me pass on larger spaces because they felt they hadn’t waited long enough.

Have you ever watched someone watch while they wait?  Watch out, maybe they are watching you!



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