In 1958, the social scientist Thomas C. Schelling ran an experiment with a group of law students from New Haven, Connecticut. He asked the students to imagine this scenario: You have to meet someone in New York City. You don’t know where you’re supposed to meet, and there’s no way to talk to the other person ahead of time. Where would you go?
This seems like an impossible question to answer well. New York is a very big city, with lots of places to meet. And yet a majority of the students chose the very same meeting place: the information booth at Grand Central Station. Then Schelling complicated the problem a bit. You know the date you’re supposed to meet the other person, he said. But you don’t know what time you’re supposed to meet. When will you show up at the information booth? Here the results were even more striking. Just about all the students said they would show up at the stroke of noon. In other words, if you dropped two law students at either end of the biggest city in the world and told them to find each other, there was a very good chance that they’d end up having lunch together.
Schelling replicated this outcome in a series of experiments in which an individual’s success depended on how well he coordinated his response with those of others. For instance, Schelling paired people up and asked them to name either “heads” or “tails,” with the goal being to match what their partners said. Thirty-six of forty-two people named “heads.” He set up a box of sixteen squares, and asked people to check one box (you got paid if everyone in the group checked the same box). Sixty percent checked the top left box. Even when the choices were seemingly infinite, people did a pretty good job of coordinating themselves. For instance, when asked the question: “Name a positive number,” 40 percent of the students chose “one.”
How were the students able to do this? Schelling suggested that in many situations, there were salient landmarks or “focal points” upon which people’s expectations would converge. (Today these are known as “Schelling points.”) Schelling points are important for a couple of reasons. First, they show that people can find their way to collectively beneficial results not only without centralized direction but also without even talking to each other. As. Schelling wrote, “People can often concert their intentions and expectations with others if each knows that the other is trying to do the same.” This is a good thing because conversation isn’t always possible, and with large groups of people in particular it can be difficult or inefficient. (Howard Rheingold’s book Smart Mobs, though, makes a convincing case that new mobile technologies— from cell phones to mobile computing—make it much easier for large collections of people to communicate with each other and so coordinate their activities.) Second, the existence of Schelling points suggests that people’s experiences of the world are often surprisingly similar, which makes successful coordination easier-After all, it would not be possible for two people to meet at Grand Central Station unless Grand Central represented roughly the same thing to both of them. The same is obviously true of the choice between “heads” and “tails.” The reality Schelling’s students shared was, of course, cultural. If you put pairs of people from Manchuria down in the middle of New York City and told them to meet each other, it’s unlikely any of them would manage to meet. But the fact that the shared reality is cultural makes it no less real.