Schelling Points

Wednesday, March 11th, 02015 at 10:01 UTC

Originally called Focal Points, later renamed Schelling Points after their creator Thomas Schelling, they are solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special, or relevant to them. The famous example Thomas Schelling used and tested with his students was the coördination problem of where to meet in NYC. If you and a friend were going to meet in NYC, but did not settle on a time or place where would you naturally choose?

The most common answer was “noon at the information booth at Grand Central Station“. There was no reason Grand Central was a better or worse location than other places, except that it would have the highest likelihood to be known to all participants.

Lots of other tests were also conducted to try to get people to think how other people would be thinking. For instance, a small 2×2 grid would be shown to two people independently. If both people choose the same square, they would both win a prize. 3 of the four squares were blue and one was red. When selecting your square, you naturally had to think, what square would the other person choose. The participants would come to a focal point and an equilibrium based on the options. In this case, the red square was the most obvious choice to pick if you were sure what the other person would choose. Both parties would be considering each others’ actions and make a selection. This is the basis of most game theory logic.

Do animals have Schelling points?

As humans we tend to pick obvious points like clock towers, landmarks and other large structures as meeting points. Do animals have something similar inbuilt in their psyche? This question arose this winter when it became more obvious with snow on the ground it was easy to spot where various dogs and cats were marking their territory.

Now, why did that cat pee right at the edge of the wall on that pipe or next to that tree? Maybe it was a good spot, maybe highly trafficked path way, maybe it was the right distance from the last mark… or maybe it is a sort of animal Schelling point. It was such an obvious spot for all cats, that this cat felt the need to claim it?

We tend to think that coördination is something that we as humans do, but it is evident in other animals. These Schelling Points could be another example of animals independently thinking a similar place is “good”. A test for this would be to have a prime location and add an object, tree, post or other landmark. Over time this would get built-up as a known “place” that animals use to mark their territory. Then remove it from the environment. If the location was “good” because it was some sort of artificial boundary, or equidistant from other points, then the removal of the landmark shouldn’t have an affect. If it does, then it could be less about the location and more about the focal point.

If you have a pet, watch them next time they go out. Are they marking a territory which is based on distance or are they more likely finding landmarks to claim that are more likely to also be found by other pets?

To the Stars

If this works for animals, it could work going the other direction up the species tree. If we look out to the stars where and what would make a logical Shelling Point? Should we be sending some sort of satellite or marker there to wait for others to find it? If it was a good enough location and landmark, then it would make sense others would do the same thing.

The biggest problem with outer-space is the distances and the time. That location and landmark make sense to us at this location and point in time and space, but by the time others see the landmark or send something to it, thousands of generations may have passed.

Meeting Points

meeting-pointWe are using Schelling Points in our daily lives more than you might consider. We should consider and design for these landmarks to be easily seen and referenced. In large crowded areas we sometimes see these explicit meeting point signs. It is good to be explicit, but at the same time, if you have to explain how a door works, you failed in the design of the door. Can our world around us be better design for these Schelling Points, not only for us, but for animals as well?

We can use Schelling Points to change behavior and influence the way we might travel, think, wait or communicate. This can have a profound positive impact in our lives if used correctly. If we know where we are, where we are going and have some visual reference or anchor, our stress, anxiety and worries can be put to rest.

There was a story that no matter where you were in the Disney World Theme park, you could always see the Cinderella Castle. It was the draw throughout the park and probably one of the more natural meeting and reference points. If you were lost in the theme park, you’d probably try to meet at the entrance/exit, information booth, or the castle.

Next time you are out and about, have a look at your surroundings, can you find a Schelling Point? If not, what could you add or take away to make it more obvious. If you got separated, where would you think the other person would gravitate too?