22 Jun 2010

Chinese order and chaos

A guest post from Sabine Johnson:

I lived in Beijing China from August 2005 to December 2007. Now I am back for a summer internship. Every morning and every evening, I take the, still incredibly crowded, subway to commute to my office.

Since 2007 much has changed. The subway system has been expanded from three to nine lines, with more lines being under construction. Paper tickets and clerks have been replaced by integrated circuit cards and automatic fare collection machines. Many trains are new, air-conditioned, and equipped with flat-screen TVs, broadcasting advertisements and entertainment news. Yet, most interesting to me are the changes in passengers’ behavior. Where loads of passengers used to crowd the car entrance points, they now line up in two neat rows on both sides of the doors. Where impatient riders used to push their way onto the cars before exiting passengers had a chance to get off, they now wait until everyone has exited before they get on.

However, one Wednesday morning, changing trains at a transfer station, I found out that impatient and disorderly behavior still lies just beneath the surface of the apparently structured and disciplined conduct, ready to erupt under the right conditions.

When I arrived that morning at the Jianguomen transfer station, an unusually large number of people were waiting on the platform for the next train, which apparently had already been delayed for a few minutes, most likely due to technical difficulties. By the time the train arrived fifteen minutes later, an even larger number of transfer passengers had accumulated, filling the platform to capacity. Gone were the orderly lines, gone courtesy and patience. As soon as the train arrived and the doors opened, people started to rush forward towards the train, preventing anybody from exiting the cars. While everyone tried to fight their way toward the train, people got kicked, squeezed, shoved and elbowed. Passengers who were caught in the middle were pushed along, whether they wanted to or not. In the process clothes were torn, glasses broken, and several people suffered minor injuries. Had somebody fallen down, he or she would without a doubt have been trampled. As arriving passengers weren’t able to exit the train, even less room was available for people to get on, and the train got delayed even more as the doors were prevented from closing by people who desperately tried to squeeze themselves aboard the overloaded cars.

Rational and orderly behavior were absent in precisely the situation in which this behavior would have led to the biggest benefit for everyone, i.e. allowing the largest number of people to enter by first allowing people to exit and thereby facilitating a more efficient transfer. Some may argue that this is an example of the” tragedy of the commons,” as everyone (rationally) seeks for his or her biggest benefit, i.e. getting on a train as soon as possible, thereby leading to the worst possible outcome for all passengers. However, given the high risk of injury, the cost of damaged clothes, and personal discomfort suffered by everyone who made it on the train, it is questionable whether individual really made a rational choice to maximize their own benefit. It seems that as soon as sufficient numbers of people are involved in the pursuit of a resource (e.g. space on a train), individuals’ behavior is guided by instinct and emotions rather than reason, and those individuals who want to act differently than the rest are prevented making the most reasonable choice (i.e. waiting for the next train).

Bottom Line: While rational considerations guide people’s behavior and choices most of the time, under certain circumstances people’s conduct may be influenced by factors other than reason, and at times people get caught in the middle and have no choice regarding their behavior.


  1. Interesting post. I disagree with your final conclusion that people caught in the middle have no choice regarding their behavior. As soon as you say you have no choice how you behave you actually contribute to the bigger problem. Even though you might be forced forward with the crowd you can still try to accommodate as best as possible and help others that may be falling, or trying to hang on to their baby, or losing their glasses, etc... The choice to behave well in the face of utter chaos is something that can never be taken from us; but we can choose to go along with the mentality of the confused around us if we desire.

  2. I don't understand this post for a number of reasons, but let's just stick with one: Rationality
    People are not rational. People are selfish, and selfishness, despite economists best efforts to convince us otherwise, does not equal rationality. People are more motivated by emotion and experience than they are by logic. Period. The economic thought in this post would only (begin) to work if there were an immediate incentive for people to behave that outweighed the emotions that accumulated while standing waiting on the platform.
    I'm afraid that a philosopher, a councelor, or a mother with several children would have more insight into this scene than an economist. Sorry Dave, Sorry Juliana, I just don't get this one.

  3. Oops. It's Sabine, not Juliana. I apologize for that.

  4. They're just 34 years from the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Yet now China has surpassed, or soon will surpass, America in industrial production.

  5. @Matt -- Sabine may also respond, but I'll clarify that economists put a VERY broad definition on "rational." It assumes that people act in their self-interest, yes, but that self-interest can include everything from altruism to delusion.

  6. Sabine emails from behind the Great Firewall: "@Julia: I don't mean to say that people don't have free choices as far as what they WANT to do, but from personal experience I know that in this particular situation, once caught in the crowd, you are going to be pushed along, no matter what you WANT to do (unless you an exceptionally physically strong individual).

    @Matt: My point is precisely that oftentimes people don't act entirely rational in the strict sense of the word (see paragraph 3; "It seems that as soon as sufficient numbers of people are involved in the pursuit of a resource (e.g. space on a train), individuals’ behavior is guided by instinct and emotions rather than reason")

    I agree with David broader definition of rational and do think that factors such as emotions and selfishness have to be taken into account when we try to understand people's decisions.

    Also, I think that people from all backgrounds can provide valuable insights into situations, and that includes economists. Disregarding any one perspective (even the strictly economic benefit driven one) only limits our understanding of situations and human behavior."


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