Help Me Imagine

For my book on em econ, I want to figure out something unusual about human psychology. It has to do with how creatures with a human psychology would react to a situation that humans have not yet encountered. So I ask for your help, dear readers. I’m going to describe a hypothetical situation, and I want you to imagine that you are in this situation, and then tell me how you’d feel about it. OK, here goes.

Imagine that you live and work in a tight-knit community. Imagine a commune, or a charity or firm where most everyone who works there also mostly socializes with others there. That is, your lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, tennis partners, etc. are mostly all from the same group of fifty to a few hundred people. For concreteness you might imagine that this community provides maid and janitorial services. Or maybe instead it services and repairs a certain kind of equipment (like cars, computers, or washing machines).

Imagine that this community was very successful about five years ago. So successful in fact that one hundred exact copies of this community were made then and spread around the world. They copied all the same people, work and play roles and relationships, even all the workspaces and homes. Never mind how this was done, it was done. And with everyone’s permission. Each of these hundred copies of the community has a slightly different context in terms of its customer needs or geographic constraints on activities. But assume that these differences are small and minor.

OK, now the key question I want you to consider is your attitude toward the other copies of your group. On one hand, you might want distance. That is, you might want to have nothing to do with those other copies. You don’t want to see or hear about them, and you want everyone else in your group to do likewise. “Na na na, I can’t hear you,” to anyone who mentions them.

On the other hand, you might be eager to maximize your chances to share insights and learn from the other groups. Not only might you want to hear about workplace innovations, you might want to see stats on what happens between the other copies of you and your spouse. For example, you may want to know how many of them are still together, and what their fights have been about.

In fact, when it was cheap you might even go out of your way to synchronize with other groups. By making the groups more similar, you may increase the relevance of their actions for you. So you might try to coordinate changes to work organization, or to who lives with whom. You might even coordinate what movies you see when, or what you eat for dinner each day.

Of course it is possible to be too similar. You might not learn anything additional from an exact copy doing exactly the same things, except maybe that your actions aren’t random. But it also seems possible to be too different, at least for the purpose of learning useful things from other groups.

Notice that in tightly synchronized groups, personal relations would tend to become more like group relations. For example, if just a few copies of you did something crazy like run away, all the copies of your spouse might worry that their partners may soon also do that crazy thing. Or imagine that you stayed at a party late, and your spouse didn’t mind initially. But if your spouse then learned that most other copies of him or her were mad at copies of you for doing this, he or she might be tempted to get mad too. The group of all the copies of you would thus move in the direction of having a group relation with all of the copies of him or her.

Now clearly the scenario where all the other groups ignore each other is more like the world you live in now, a world you are comfortable with. So I ask you to imagine not so much what you now feel comfortable with, but how comfortable people would feel with if they grew up with this as normal. Imagine that people grew up in a culture where it was common to make copies of groups, and for each group to somewhat learn from and synchronize with the other groups.

In this case, just how much learning and synchronizing could people typically be comfortable with? What levels of synchronization would make for the most productive workers? The happiest people? How would this change with the number copies of the group? Or with years since the group copies were made? After all, right after the initial copying the groups would all be very synchronized. Would they immediately try hard to differentiate their group from others, or would they instead try to maintain synchronization for as long as possible?

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