One time, while driving on an interstate highway when the weather was gray and misty, I noticed a curious paradox.
Although it was only sprinkling occasionally, nearly every car had its headlights on, complying with an obscure New York Sate law requiring headlight use when it rains. However, nearly every car was also going 65-75 miles per hour. This was certainly not in compliance with the well-known and publicized 55 miles per hour speed limit in effect at the time. It also didn’t make sense. Why would people obey a law they were unlikely to get ticketed or punished for breaking, while at the same time they disobeyed a law that they could easily get ticketed for, with substantial costs in fines and higher insurance?
This question stuck with me for a long time. While the behavior I witnessed did not seem logical, I was inclined to believe there had to be some reasonable explanation for it. After all, I was doing the same thing most of the other drivers on the road were doing. But beyond that, I sensed this observation might provide a key to getting people to be better drivers. This was particularly relevant to me at the time, as I was on my way to a traffic safety conference when I observed this paradox.
Around this time, I was reading M. Mitchell Waldrop’s book “Complexity.” While I was vaguely familiar with the concept of entropy, in which things are seen to be perpetually running down, I was totally unfamiliar with the new science of complexity, in which things are seen to be perpetually evolving into ever more complex and sophisticated ways of being.
And yet, while I had never heard of complexity, I recognized many examples of the phenomena it focused on. The cars we drive today are much more complex than even those I had admired in the 1960’s. Likewise, the economy we work in that enables us to produce and purchase those cars has also grown in complexity from that of the seemingly straightforward days of the 60’s; that economy in turn was much more complex than that of say, 100 years ago.
Perhaps, I thought, the paradoxical behavior I had observed on the highway was somehow a reflection of this tendency to evolve to increasingly more complex patterns of behavior. One of the qualities that Waldrop discussed was the “bottom up” nature of self organizing systems. Increasing complexity comes about because that is what the users of a given system want; it is not imposed from on high somewhere. Cars today are increasingly complex largely because we expect more and more from them.
This seems to be a natural function of the way we are. The more something like a car can provide us, the more we tend to want. Even if our present car is reliable, luxurious and sporty in its performance, after some time has passed we are likely to be drawn to a newer car that is better designed, more luxurious and sportier. And to provide us with such qualities in a car, manufacturers have to continually strive to use more refined and complex technology to improve on their product.
I felt this “bottom up” quality was important in understanding the motorists’ behavior I had observed. Clearly, the authoritative power of the State, conveyed both through the raw power of the police and the cajoling power of slogans like “55 Saves Lives” did not seem to be greatly altering their behavior. Something within each motorist seemed to be propelling them forward in the behavior they were pursuing. But what? And how?
Some time later I stumbled upon what is arguably one of the most revolutionary concepts in modern science. This is the dual, wave/particle nature of matter. I vaguely remembered something from the few weeks’ of high school physics I’d had about the dual nature of light, and how it behaved as both a particle and a wave. But I had always assumed, as most people do, that some things were particles while other things were waves. In a foggy kind of logic, I had presumed that tangible things like a table or a chair were made up of particles, while forms of energy like light or sound were composed of waves. However, modern science has discovered that, at it most basic level, everything is both particles and waves simultaneously.
At first I found this concept hard to understand. But with more reading and thinking, I gradually realized that the world around us is full of examples of this dualism. The catch is that at any one time you can only perceive something as either a particle or a wave. For example, you can see the ocean’s wave quality in the way it rhythmically crashes on the shore. Take a drop of sea water and put it under a strong enough microscope and you would see the particles that water is made up of. But you cannot see the particle and the wave nature of the ocean at the same time; you have to adjust your focus to perceive either one or the other.
The same is true of a crowd creating a “wave” in a stadium. You can either focus on the movement of the wave or you can focus on some individuals participating in it; you cannot focus on both at the same time.
With this new awareness, I realized what had been happening on that highway that morning. Viewed from the individual, particle perspective, the behavior of those motorists did not make sense. They were obeying a minor law while flagrantly disobeying a much more important one. This did not seem to be in their own, individual/particle interests. But viewed from a group/wave perspective, there suddenly appeared a logic to their seemingly inconsistent behavior. In terms of both the minor and the more important law, their behaviors reflected those of the other motorists they observed on the highway.
If I see many other drivers turning on their headlights because it is raining, I will feel an inclination to do the same. If I see them going ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I will feel an inclination to do that as well. In both cases, the behavior reflects the “bottom up” quality complexity science focuses on. The drivers themselves create the norms for their behavior. While the State may establish a context for this behavior, through headlight laws or speed limits, the actual behavior has an ad hoc quality to it.
The reason often given by traffic safety authorities for drivers mirroring others’ behavior is because they (the drivers) feel there is less possibility in a group of being caught. However this reflects only the self interest, particle perspective, which leads us back to the original paradox. It might explain the speeding, but what about the minimally enforced headlight law? Why did they obey that?
I believe the answer to this question lies in recognizing the group/wave side of our behavior. We are individuals, yes, but we are also social beings with a strong inclination to synchronize our behaviors with those of a larger group. Even when that group happens to consist of anonymous motorists on a superhighway.
A version of this post was originally published on the web site Quantum Age in October, 1996.