Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cooperators and defectors

Today in Harvard Square I watched a pretty young woman run the usual gauntlet of charity fundraisers with clipboards lining the sidewalk. One engaged her, but she made her way down the sidewalk apologizing.

Moments later, a second fundraiser veered toward her, pen in hand. "Hi! Do you have a minute to be a superhero today?"
She smiled nervously. "Sorry, I've got to catch a bus!"
I thought he would give up, but he followed her, asking, "Wait, how old are you?"
"I'm 24," she said, striding faster. "Sorry, I've really got to go."

I wanted to shout after her, You don't owe that guy anything. Sharing a sidewalk with him does not mean you have to engage in his sales pitch, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to tell him your age.

The thing is, I love the idea of friendlier cities. Boston is not a warm and welcoming place, and I try to change that. I ask lost-looking people if they need directions. I hold doors for people. A few days ago when a woman on the street told me, "That's a great hat!" it made my day.

But there are interactions that take instead of giving. The men who follow you when you're not inviting further contact, who ask you personal questions - I have to remind myself that I don't have to talk to them. I don't owe them conversation or smiles or spare change. Sometimes they get angry at my silence, but that's further reason to not interact with them.

In game theory, the classic prisoner's dilemma sets up incentives so that both participants are better off if they cooperate, but if one person cooperates and the other defects, the defector wins big and the cooperator loses big.

In Ecuador, I was walking down a street in a small town. As I approached an auto shop I saw the mechanic leaning against the garage, and at first I decided to do the distant-stare method of not interacting with strange men. Then I reproached myself: after all, it was a small and friendly town where I'd seen neighbors greet each other cordially. When I reached critical proximity, I gave him a nod and a "Buenos tardes" at exactly the same moment as he wolf-whistled. I had just cooperated with a defector.

I hope he was as embarrassed as I was, but I doubt it.

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