Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Game of Jerk and Sucker (Freeway Version)

Almost no one who is a jerk thinks he's a jerk. So how do you know if you are one? The ordinary devices of introspection won't do the trick. You need to look, without blinkers, at your behavior. To do so, you need a situation where the line between jerk and not-jerk is clear and there are many others in essentially the same situation against whom to compare yourself.

Fortunately (or, rather, unfortunately) the freeways of California provide just such a situation. What I'm talking about, of course, is the guy who speeds by the long line of cars waiting in the congested exit lane and cuts in at the last second.

Some might doubt that this is jerkish behavior. Surely those are the very people who themselves cut in. But is that unorthodox opinion the cause of the aggressive driving or the (rationalizing, self-deceived) effect of it? Introspection, again, will be of no help here.

Consider Kant: Surely the maxim "skip the line to cut in at the last minute" is not universalizable. It's not a maxim that you could simultaneously will that everyone abide by, since their doing so would cause congestion in your own fast-flowing lane, exactly the kind of congestion you are aiming to avoid.

Or take a consequentialist tack: Does your cutting in at the last second maximize happiness or human flourishing? Well, you save time and you may feel good (perhaps even deliciously wicked), but you cost each of the many cars behind you a little time and you annoy those who see you scoot past; you may slow down your own faster-moving lane with your last-minute cut-in; and you increase the risks of an accident. It's hard to see how the calculus could be positive here, unless you have a very good reason for thinking your time is more precious than others'. (Maybe you're running late? Well, couldn't you have hit the road earlier?)

Or consider character examplars: Would Confucius cut in at the last minute? How would Jesus drive?

With this behavioral measure in hand, each of us can reflect on our jerk-sucker ratio. Suppose for every 48 cars that wait in an orderly way (the suckers) there are 2 who cut in (the jerks). If you are among those two, that puts you in the 96th percentile for jerks! On the other hand, if there are 15 cars cutting in and 35 waiting, cutting puts you only in the top 70th percentile. (If the ratio gets too balanced, though, the formula breaks down: 50-50 is just a jam, and 45-55 is probably just choosing one's lane wisely.)

Me, I find myself typically at about the 80th percentile. I'll wait patiently if almost everyone else is doing so -- but if enough people are cutting in, I'll break and run (or plan to do so next time around). But since I really loathe being either jerk or sucker, my preferred plan is to stay off the road!

Actually, at such times I think I would usually will the Kantian maxim. I'd be delighted if both lanes were equally plugged. Gladly, I'd sacrifice the jerk's time savings to avoid the jerk-sucker game entirely! But that still doesn't change the uncomfortable fact that, for the most part, I'd rather be in the 80th percentile for jerk than the 20th for sucker.

Now the question is, how well does this tendency to be self-serving carry across situations...?


Unknown said...


How about this response: pull into the "passing" lane and then keep pace with traffic. I love to do this, when there is no way around me. You're not the sucker and get to enjoy some guiltless schadenfreude at the jerks's expense. Truckers will give you honks of thanks too.

Maybe this is the sanctimonious response?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I see the temptation! Neither jerk nor sucker, but something else. Enforcer? A little dangerous, perhaps; and what if one the "jerks" really does have an excellent reason...?

Brad C said...

Oh no; that is a great point. Now I will be hesitating to do this...I am picturing myself blocking the taxi with the pregnant woman giving birth in it...

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear from someone who actually knows about traffic patterns. It seems to me like a lot of traffic is caused by drivers who accelerate too slowly behind others and/or brake too much, both disrupting the flow of traffic. I justify "jerkish" behavior sometimes by believing what I take to be true but may be false (and in either case may be rationalization)--that I am filling in gaps left by poor drivers in the slow exiting lane and hence speeding up the overall flow of traffic. Does anyone know whether this is true? (And am I a jerk when I do this regardless of whether it is true--I'm trying to maximize utility!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, well, if you're *trying* to maximize utility...! ;)

On your specific point about traffic patterns, it seems to me to matter whether the cars are compressing (e.g., to a stop at a red) or decompressing (e.g., accelerating through an intersection). In the former case, the cut in doesn't seem like a freebie in the way it *might* be in the latter case.

Justin said...

There was some recently publicized research that claimed that selfish driving of this sort actually made traffic flow better. Unfortunately, I don't have citations, haven't read the studies, and have to point out that it doesn't matter if the behavior is actually utility maximizing, so long as the jerk sees it as merely a way of benefitting himself, potentially at the expense of others.

JC said...

Thanks for a great post!

But I would frame the Kantian analysis differently. Rather than focusing merely on the effects on the passing lane, consider: universalizing the maxim "get to the exit without bother to wait in line" is inconsistent with the existence of lines, simpliciter. You cannot rationally will simultaneously both the existence of the convention of forming lines, and that a person should pursue their own time advantage by skipping a line whenever circumstances make that possible. If the latter maxim were universalized, there would never be lines at all. Essentially, it's a free-rider problem, in my view.

Anonymous said...

I also always assumed that late merging was as selfish as cutting a line, but I learned the wrongness of late merging is highly controversial. See Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic or this concise summary of his conclusion on the topic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

JC: Yes, that's another reasonable way to think of it.

Anon: That might work for merging, but I don't think it works for the cases I described, left turns and freeway exits. There are several important differences, among them the fact that in both the latter cases, there are cars still going straight whose lane you slow if you slow down when exiting late, but if you don't slow down then you increase the risk of an accident; also in a straight merge the behavior of drivers is predictable, in exiting or not there is signal value in getting over and joining the line or not; etc.