I am currently working on a chapter for the third edition of my first book. In it I make repeated references to a concept I usually refer to as a Schelling point, after Thomas Schelling who came up with it. An alternative term for the same concept is "focal point." It occurred to me that perhaps I should use it instead. How to decide?
One obvious way is usage—and nowadays, there is a quick and easy way to check that. I googled for "Schelling Point" and got an estimate of about 5300 results. I tried "focal point" and got an estimate of over thirty million. That seemed to settle the question—until I looked at the first page of the second search and realized that many of the results were for entirely different meanings of the term.
So I tried googling for ["Focal Point" AND Schelling], hoping that Google's search language was adequate to understand that. Apparently it is—at least, the result was down to 32,400. As a check, I tried comparing the result for ["Schelling Point" AND "game theory"] to the result for ["focal point" AND "Game Theory"]. The first got me 2710 results, the second 134,000.
None of those searches provides perfect information, both because Google's estimate of the number of results is, in my experience, a very uncertain one, and because my search strings do not perfectly identify contexts where the two terms are being used to mean the same thing. Further, I don't really know how sophisticated a search language Google understands—it may interpret my AND as asking for the word "and" rather than limiting the results to pages that include both terms. But the results were sufficiently strong to make me reasonably confident that my preferred terminology is, by a substantial margin, the less common one.
It may occur to readers familiar with Schelling's idea that the story I have just told is relevant to the idea as well as its label. A
Schelling focal point is a result that two or more people coordinate on because of its perceived uniqueness. Schelling's initial example involved two students offered a reward if they managed, without any communication, to both be at the same place at the same time in New York city the next day; they ended up under the clock in Grand Central Station at noon. One of my favorite examples involves two bank robbers arguing over how to divide the loot. Each believes he did more than half the work and is entitled to more than half the money, but they agree on a fifty-fifty split because that is the one division that both see as unique; if they argue too long over who is entitled to more and how much, the cops may show up. In the first example the students coordinate on what both see as the unique place and time because they are not permitted to communicate. In the second, the two robbers coordinate on the unique division because although they can talk they are unable to communicate—each has an incentive to claim that he will only be satisfied with the larger share, whether or not it is true.
Language, word usage, also involves a problem of coordination without communication, since it is not practical for me to discuss with all other speakers of the English language what words we will use for what ideas. One possible Schelling point is usage—everyone agrees to whatever terminology the larger number of people currently use. Enough people acting that way could considerably simplify the language—and, arguably, has done so. Google, as I have just demonstrated, makes it much easier to find out what terminology is in more common usage. If enough people use it that way, the effect on the language could be significant.
Not, of course, an entirely positive effect. Speaking as an economist, I regard consistent terminology as on the whole a good thing. Speaking as a poet, on the other hand, there is much to be said for having three different words that mean the same thing—the first two you try might not fit the meter or rhyme scheme.
Readers curious as to what focal points have to do with the subject of my book (The Machinery of Freedom
) can find the answer in an old article
with an earlier version of the argument. It includes footnotes crediting some of the people whose ideas influenced it. One thing I forgot to include was thanks to the late Earl Thompson, the person who persuaded me of the importance of commitment strategies in understanding human behavior. I plan to remedy that error in the chapter I am now working on—and have just done so here.
At a considerable tangent ... . I first started thinking about the problem of coordination without communication as a college student coordinating plans with my parents at a time when long distance calls were expensive. It occurred to me then that that problem is the central feature of one of the world's most popular games: bridge. From a game theory point of view it is a two player game, since each pair of partners has interests entirely in common. But it is a two player game in which each player consists of two people, permitted to talk to each other in only a very restricted fashion.
Which led me to suspect that perhaps each of the world's great games can be viewed as designed to teach a particular skill. The case of chess is obvious as is that of Diplomacy, Go perhaps a little less so; I never carried the idea much beyond that. But readers are invited to offer additions to the list.
Labels: Focal point, game theory, google, Shelling point, Thomas Schelling, usage