Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Venues Engineered for Conflict

I was at a rock concert the other day, and it was in one of those theatres with seats the whole way through, and only a small area for the mosh pit at the front.

I really dislike concerts at these types of venues (but liked the band enough to put up with it). When the show started, there were a few people who initially stood up, but most kept sitting down. Things settled down into the equilibrium of 'I guess we're sitting down then'. This gives the whole atmosphere one of a picnic or a movie, neither of which is really what I'm aiming for.

But there were a couple of enthusiastic people that really wanted to stand up and dance. And this produced the following obvious argument (I couldn't hear them, but I'm pretty sure it went down like this):
Person Behind: Sit down, we can't see.
Person in Front: It's a rock concert, you're not meant to sit down. Stand up if you can't see.
Person Behind: I don't want to stand up, I want you to sit down.
etc. With this one girl near me, it ended up getting quite heated.

Now, both parties were sure the other one was a complete dickhead. And honestly, they were probably both right. But what's more interesting is how likely this conflict is in any stadium with seats.

The basic setup of the problem is:

1. People have variation in whether they personally would prefer to stand or sit.

2. Standing up imposes a cost to the person behind you, unless they're also standing.

3. Most people dislike imposing the cost in #2, but this decreases with the number of people doing it with them.

This can result in the equilibrium of everyone standing up. It can also result in the equilibrium of everyone sitting down. And at the start, people are often uncertain, watching others to see what's going to happen.

But there's always a few people with very strong preferences on point 1. In the 'everyone stands' equilibrium, there may be a few people sitting anyway, but we decide that the odd guy sitting anyway must just have tired legs, and that's his decision since we're all standing.

In the 'everyone sits' equilibrium though, things get tense when the (inevitable) small number of people want to stand. Because the person at the front usually isn't a sociopath, imposing costs without caring, although sometimes they are. Usually they're trying to set off a cascade towards the 'everyone stands' equilibrium  - if I stand, the guy behind me will stand, the guy behind him will stand, etc. Then they'll feel better, because they get to stand AND not feel like they're imposing a cost.

But the person behind may resist, and continue sitting down (daring the person in front to keep imposing the cost). They can also raise the stakes by bitching them out.

The problem is, in an audience of thousands of people that are predominantly sitting at the concert, there will always be a small number sociopaths wanting to stand regardless, and a larger number trying to set off a decision cascade.

And this is completely inevitable when you organise a concert in this kind of place. At every one of these concerts that end up in the 'everyone sits' equilibrium (which happens maybe half the time, depending on the type of music), there will be people having exactly the same heated argument, having their enjoyment of the show ruined.

There are, as I see it, a couple of solutions to the problem.

The first is if you happen to end up in the 'everyone stands' equilibrium - the people with tired legs may grumble, but it probably won't be directed at the person in front of them specifically.

The second is if the singer is savvy, and directly asks the crowd to please all stand up. This is almost always enough to shift the equilibrium, and I'm always grateful when they do.

The third is to hold rock concerts in places without seats. This is my preferred option, but not always available alas.

My guess is that the two people yelling at each other probably didn't stop to blame the concert promoter for scheduling the concert at such a venue, which made this type of thing quite likely.

But they should have. Co-ordination games rarely work well when thousands of people are involved, and architects ought to plan accordingly.

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