Why do some easy things take groups of people so long to do?
This question has perplexed me for years. While I wait for friends deciding where they’d like to eat, I often wish we could pick a restaurant at random. Toss a coin, cut through the committee, and put us out of our misery.
But I am not talking about complicated decisions, like “where should we go for dinner?”. I am talking about things like marshalling a group after a decision has already been made. Simple things. Things like ushering your housemates out the door after the dinner location is already decided. Things like ensuring your kids get the school bus on time. Things like waiting for your partner to get ready.
Things involving coordination.
I think I finally have an answer: cascading ignorance.
Cascading ignorance is best illustrated by example:
Say you’re in a group that has just come to a decision about what to do. Perhaps you’re a group of three friends who’ve chosen a place to go out for dinner; maybe you’re a couple going sunbathing in the park. Or maybe you’re different teams in an organisation, who have agreed upon a cross-functional project. In all cases, one unlucky party is ready first, and has to wait for the rest.
This prompt person has a choice to make, a choice that will ultimately determine the speed of the group. They have to decide whether to wait attentively, or wait ignorantly.
If you’re anything like me, you find waiting for people one of the most painful tasks on earth. It’s been known since time immemorial — it’s why phrases like “as boring as watching paint dry” exist. In today’s day and age though, you can watch a Youtube video while your paint dries. Instead of attentively watching the paint, you can ignore it and scroll your phone instead.
Lets take the dinner-with-friends example:
You assume your friends will be ready in five minutes, so you scroll through facebook, looking for about five minutes worth of distraction…
Your next friend arrives in 3 minutes. Absorbed in your phone, you barely acknowledge her existence. Rather than coax you out of your virtual construct, she decides to spend the next few minutes tidying up your front hall…
After 2 more minutes the final friend arrives. He is confronted with an ignorant sight: you staring at your phone, and your other friend doing some chores. He guesses it will be at least a couple of minutes before you guys are both finished, so he takes out his phone and opens Instagram, seeking around two minutes worth of distraction…
Your video finishes, and you hassle your friends: “You ready yet?”. “Just one more minute!” they cry. Disgruntled, you open Twitter, in search of about a minute’s worth of instant stimulus…
By this time, the hall is tidy, and your friend returns to see the rest of you ensconced in your virtual worlds. Guessing it’ll take you almost a minute to wrap up, she decides to reply to an email she’s been putting off…
Before long, your slow friend has exited the explore screen, and puts on his shoes. But seeing both of you on your phones he decides…
This process goes on forever, an infinite regress of delayed distraction. Each step proceeds at the rate of the slowest person. While you’re waiting, you can’t put your friends shoes on for him. Instead of waiting, you entertain yourself, creating a distraction during which everyone else has to wait for you.
The distraction fraction
The amount you punish your friends for being late is called the distraction fraction. With a distraction fraction of 1⁄2, if your friend is 5 minutes late, you’ll punish him by making him wait an additional 2.5 minutes for you to finish calling your girlfriend. But then the Golden Rule kicks in: your friend does unto you what you did unto him, and you have to wait an additional 1.25 minutes for him to finish up the Youtube video he was watching.
This infinite series continues. It might originally have taken your slowest friend 5 minutes longer to get ready. But because you chose to wait ignorantly, the whole group will take 10 minutes or longer to get ready.
The size of the distraction fraction depends on how petty the earliest group member is, and how urgent the activity is.
If the distraction fraction is greater than 1, each subsequent wait-time takes longer than the last. This means the total wait-time diverges, and the group will never be ready! This is like the teenage couple playing hard-to-get: each partner waits longer to reply to the other’s messages. Their romantic rendezvous will never happen.
Breaking the chain
Everyone wants to feel like they matter. And everyone hates feeling like they’re wasting their time. These two forces conspire to make groups take a lot longer than they actually need to.
The distraction fraction measures who takes the burden of waiting. If it is high, you shift the burden of waiting onto others. If low, you absorb the waiting yourself.
Waiting ignorantly pulls you out of the present moment, and makes time sweep by. When people see you focusing on themselves, they do the same. When you’re on your phone, the signal it sends to your friend is “I don’t need you to have fun.” They are likely to respond in kind.
Waiting attentively can be dull, and slows time to a glacial pace. But it breaks the chain of distraction. When your friend shows up and sees you ready for them they’ll feel valued. They’ll be energised to spend time with you. And most importantly, they’ll hurry up.
A lesson I’ve only just learned: If you want someone to get things done, show them that they matter.
Thanks to Katie Hollands for reading a draft.