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Foolish Consistency

In my first few years of driving, I actually used to take the speed limit quite seriously—I'd keep an eye on the speedometer, and drive carefully along at a constant 55 mph. Later, after I'd learned to pay less attention to the speed limit, the idea of driving at constant speed still stuck with me, so much so that I used to think it was a great coup to find a car driving at a constant speed slightly lower than mine and pass it with excruciating slowness. Now, though, I know that that was a terrible violation of the principle of relative speed; it also happens to be the perfect example of what, following Emerson, I think of as foolish consistency.

I have only a few things to say about foolish consistency in general. For one thing, I don't mean to say that all consistency is foolish. I don't want to get into the exact conditions, here, but I'd guess that consistency is foolish only when there's no purpose to it. For another, I really like the idea (from Who Is Passing Whom?) that decisions should be tentative and flexible. To me, that seems like just the opposite of foolish consistency.

Now, moving from the general to the specific, here are some nice memes that neutralize particular kinds of foolish consistency in driving.

  • It's OK to vary your speed as you drive.

In other words, your speed doesn't have to be constant, and in many situations, shouldn't be.

Sometimes, when another driver is being annoyingly sticky, I'll increase my default speed by perhaps 10 or 15 mph, just to make ver go away. (Another situation in which I like to change my default speed is described in the above-mentioned essay on relative speed.)

The next meme is just a special case of the first one, but I think it's still worth making explicit.

  • It's OK to slow down as well as speed up.

Suppose you want to move one lane to the right to get to a freeway exit, or to get out of the way of faster cars that are approaching from behind; and suppose there's another car in the way. I think that most people, in that situation, will speed up, even if there's a better opening behind the other car. I'll admit that it's natural to speed up—it's easier to see forward than backward, and so easier to see the gaps that are reachable by speeding up. On the other hand, with proper awareness of the surrounding traffic, it shouldn't be necessary to have the gaps in sight to know they're there.

Slowing down is also a good way of getting others to pass you, as I mentioned in—again—that essay on relative speed.

  • It's (usually) OK to miss a turn.

If you're boxed out, or just happen to miss a turn, you can always go to the next intersection and turn around, or take an alternate route.

The same thought can apply even if you don't miss the turn. If you're trying to make a left, and there's too much traffic, and you're feeling impatient, you can change your mind, decide not to turn, and perhaps circulate by going around the block to the right.

If you think of your own consistencies as rules, then Morpheus, in The Matrix, summed it all up quite nicely.

What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent; others can be broken.


I'm trying to free your mind, Neo.

(That, in turn, reminds me of Driving in Boston.)

Finally, having said all that, I'd also like to present a few counter-memes that argue for consistency.

As inconsistency shades into unpredictability, it becomes dangerous. The following, from Snow Crash, is true, but not recommended.

A Kourier has to establish space on the pavement. Predictable law-abiding behavior lulls drivers. They mentally assign you to a little box in the lane, assume you will stay there, can't handle it when you leave that little box.

Y.T. is not fond of boxes. Y.T. establishes her space on the pavement by zagging mightily from lane to lane, establishing a precedent of scary randomness. Keeps people on their toes, makes them react to her, instead of the other way round.

To put it another way, as your actions become more unpredictable, others will find it harder to cooperate with you—that's one of the conclusions Axelrod drew in The Evolution of Cooperation.

What accounts for TIT FOR TAT's robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term cooperation.


  See Also

  Cruise Control
  No Pure Strategy Is Stable
  Via Turn Signals

@ April (2002)