Can we all merge later?

If you’re traumatized by traffic, the following claim may strike you as controversial if not downright sacrilegious. So let me apologize in advance for any offense. But then let me direct you to the common situation in which one of two lanes on your side of the roadway ends, necessitating a merge into the other. And finally, let me claim that waiting a bit longer to merge is a win-win driving strategy that can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Much like the drivers currently taking offense, I’m generally of the mind that merging as soon as possible is the best and most courteous thing to do. If you saw me on a road in a lane about to end, you’d quickly see me merging. And then, looking a little closer inside my window, you’d see me taking a very dim view of the guy in the huge pickup truck—and it’s always a guy in a huge pickup truck—who waits till the very last minute to merge and inevitably cuts everyone off. So rest assured that the views expressed here do not reflect some odd idiosyncratic opposition to merging—or some secret life as the guy in the pickup truck.

Instead they reflect a realization borne of a recent construction project. You see, there’s a road in my area in which the right lane gradually comes to an end, necessitating an eventual merge into the left. Until recently, this merge has been unremarkable, with courteous drivers weaving together naturally and continuing on their merry way. But then came construction on another area road that forced everybody and their brother onto this one. And then I observed the tendency of approximately 90% of drivers to do what I do—to get into the left lane as soon as humanly possible, leaving the left lane totally jammed and the right lane free of all traffic except the occasional pickup truck.

And then I got to thinking: Is this really the best outcome for all of us do-gooders on the left? Here we are, just twiddling our thumbs in frustration. And there we are, watching the pickup guy whizz by on the right, now boiling mad. Wouldn’t it be better for some of us to loosen up our do-gooding by staying in the right lane a little bit longer, thereby reducing our own wait time? And here’s the critical part: Wouldn’t that also be better for the people who were in the left lane already or are dead-set on remaining do-gooders and merging right away? With our departure, their wait time would certainly go down too. And here’s the best part of all: If enough do-gooders were to merge a bit later, wouldn’t that gleefully stymie the devious designs of the pickup guy, who planned to leave all us do-gooders in the dust? In short, isn’t it a win-win (and possibly a win-win-win) for some of us to merge later?

Turns out, my realization is reasonable in the eyes of the construction company, which subsequently installed a sign urging people to “use both lanes” (including the one that ends). So, much as it pains my do-gooder inclinations to say so, I suspect that a few of us merging a bit later—not dangerously late and not just the guy in the pickup truck—would produce a win-win outcome for all of us. A better use of all available roadway, just like a better use of all available resources in any negotiation, typically leads to a better outcome for everyone.

Driving ourselves crazy: Managing summer traffic through social dilemma research

It’s the season of the summer vacation! Beaches beckon, elevations entice, cabins call. Unfortunately, a common annoyance tends to block our bliss: summer traffic. “Everyone had the same idea!” we muse, as we endlessly and aimlessly burn fossils.

I can offer no cure for traffic. If I could, I’d be rich! But I can offer some advice to make this annoyance—both the outright jam and the long progression of cars—a bit more negotiable. And it starts by treating traffic as a social dilemma.

A social dilemma, in short, is an ultra-common and extensively-researched situation in which many people are trying to share a common resource (e.g., a road). Here’s the kicker: on an individual level, it makes sense for everyone to claim as much of that resource as they can for themselves—to be as competitive as they can. But if everyone does that, well then the resource disappears quickly.

Let’s get specific. When you see summer traffic, what’s really happening? Everyone’s trying to share a common resource—like an annoyingly insufficient number of lanes across the Bay Bridge (don’t get me started). And while it might make sense for everyone to claim as much of the road as possible—e.g., by cutting everyone else off—if everyone does that, you get mayhem. You get a much worse jam, if not a few serious accidents. In short, if everyone acts competitively instead of cooperatively, everyone suffers.

So how do you solve a social dilemma? Since a solution requires everyone to override self-interested yet fully rational behavior, it’s not particularly easy. Luckily, social dilemmas are solvable, and research presents a plethora of potential solutions. And here are a smattering of ideas that seem relevant to the summer gridlock:

  1. Try to communicate: One reason social dilemmas don’t get solved is that the involved parties don’t or can’t communicate their intention to act cooperatively. Barring any method of establishing cooperative relations, they revert to competitive self-interest. Communicating in traffic is far from easy, and a common form of communication (with one finger) is not particularly cooperative. But most of us could probably be a bit more explicit with our turn signals and hand signals (especially if we live in Maryland). Indeed, if you take the lead and communicate as explicitly as possible—to the point of overdoing it—I’m willing to bet that you’ll find the others in the same gridlock following suit. If nothing else, it’s a fun experiment to try while warming the globe.
  2. Show leadership: Research on social dilemmas consistently documents the ability of leaders to solve social dilemmas by coordinating the behavior of group members. In traffic, the obvious problem that there is no leader. And the person who thinks he’s the leader—that guy in the Escalade with the tinted windows and stereo system audible on the Eastern Shore—is the crux of the problem. But you can be a leader too. You can take the opportunity to let a few people in, more people than you otherwise would’ve. And yes, the Escalade guy might drive all over you. But let him: You don’t want to hear Beyonce that loud anyway. And you’re likely to generate a cycle of positive reciprocity in which other drivers, sensing your generosity, perceive a norm of magnanimity and feel guilty about their own self-interested aggressiveness. In other words, I think you’ll sense others increasingly letting others in, moving everyone through those two silly lanes faster.
  3. Establish a relationship: The most difficult social dilemmas are one-shot games: situations when you’re interacting with someone once and never again—because there’s no possibility of your current cooperation ever getting repaid. On the surface, traffic seems like a one-shot game if ever there was one. But I think most of us have had the experience of following and/or being followed by someone for the bulk of a long journey. Maybe we both set our cruise controls identically; maybe we stopped at the same gas stations repeatedly (hopefully they’re not tailing us out of creepiness or road rage). In these situations, we have the opportunity to establish a cooperative relationship. And when we have that opportunity, we should take it—in particular, by thinking very carefully about our behaviors at the very beginning. If we establish an early rapport—with either driver letting the other amicably pass on occasion—the journey is likely to prove pleasant. If we establish a show of testosterone—with both drivers speeding up anytime the other one hopes to pass—well, then the journey is sure to raise everyone’s hackles.

I don’t claim that any of this is rocket science. But I do hope that these three simple principles, inspired by research on social dilemmas, can help to make your summer drive more negotiable. And your vacation more enjoyable.

Have you seen or used any of these tactics recently?