Sunday, June 5, 2011

Unsynchronized elevators and selfishness

My building has two elevators, each with its own call button, independent of each other. My office is on the top floor, and when I want to take the elevator, I systematically push both buttons, so as to minimize my waiting time. Then I simply go into the first elevator that makes it up to my floor, and my waiting time is the minimum of the two waiting times.

This week I got chided by my visitor for that behavior. He claimed that I was increasing everyone's waiting time, because I was making both elevators come to my floor, but one of them was just coming up for nothing. That slows things down for everyone in the building, he argued. If everyone does the same as me, it is almost as if there were twice as many people in the building as there really are, so my behavior induces dynamics that are very far from the social optimum. In other words, I am violating Kant's universal moral law: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." Instead, I am selfishly choosing my actions so that, if everyone else's actions are fixed, I am minimizing my personal waiting time.

Some remarks:
- I have been doing this for close to seven years, but never thought about it, and no one had mentioned it to me before. Are selfish choices so ingrained in the culture here in the US that we don't even think to question them?
- My visitor was from France, where there is a tradition of being socially minded (as in: people on the street tend to support strikers even if it causes them hours of delays). Are social-minded choices so ingrained in that culture that it is natural for them to first look for actions that realize the social optimum (that is, apply Kant's law)?
- It is not possible to modify the current layout and synchronize the elevator buttons because of some security reason, or so the elevator company claims. Could we modify the system to give some kind of reward to not push both buttons? For example, if pushing the button gave us a slight electric jolt, or if the buttons were slightly gooey, or if we had to swipe our card and had a daily quota of button calls...


  1. "Are selfish choices so ingrained in the culture here in the US that we don't even think to question them?"

    You can't blame the culture (of the US or of France) for your own decisions. Yes, this seems a bit selfish to me, depending on how busy the elevators typically are, but the correct answer to fix the elevators. Go to a different elevator company; those guys are obviously incompetent.

  2. Actually, Matt Lease and Guy Eddon - grad students who started with me at Brown - implemented a synching system for the elevators as a class project. You can read about it here (p. 7).

  3. Anonymous, that wasn't my own fully informed decision, since until now I had not considered the alternatives. Aren't the actions we make without thinking them through the ones most imbued by our culture?

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  5. Cora, thanks for the link. Lovely article! I had heard something about it, but that it had not been implemented for some obscure safety reason claimed by the elevator company.

  6. I thought about this myself, since the elevators in my building are the same. I was able to rationalize it as follows.

    For a pair of lightly used elevators, such as yours, the position that will minimize the typical waiting time to answer the _next_ request may be to have the two elevators separated -- one near the top and one near the bottom. Since you will be taking one elevator to the bottom, it is better that you call the other one to the top.

  7. I'm sorry to burst your bubble about France, Claire, but here at Paris 6, one of the largest universities in Paris, the CS lab has three elevators with one call button each... but since at any given time two elevators are dysfunctional, this moral quandary is never a problem. People who value their times take the stairs, the others take advantage of the wait to smoke a cigarette.

    So it seems you might have slightly less incompetent elevator operators.

  8. I do not believe you have to take it to the extent of kant's universal - especially since the universal of the modern global mono-culture is focused on the individual (a public of individuals)

    In America (and many places I've been to in Europe) we have a public culture far removed from any sense of community - maybe your friend happened to grow up closer to a sense of community wherein consideration for the group precedes the individual consideration by default as it does in most/all community cultures. If the building/context contained someone you cared about (or "belonged" to in a community sense) their proximity and shared use of the elevator would have been a natural concern

    As first and foremost an individual in a public context it is not natural to consider the other, there is no reason to expect such a consideration as it is not required by any "public" or institutional regulation, training, metric, etc...


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