Agents, Memory and Sitcoms

Back in 2009 I published a paper on how agents competing in a bounded-rationality scenario (the Minority Game) could do worse by being able to remember more than their peers. This happened in a very particular evolutionary case, where a majority of agents all had the same memory size and were able to "sync" their behavior, leaving the brainier agent out of sync. 

A reviewer once mentioned this was not realistic and something had to be wrong, since a rational agent receiving more information could decide to filter out the information that was not useful and effectively get in sync with the others if this was beneficial. This was not a central argument in the paper, but I put some thought into this and argued something along the lines that more information meant a larger search space, thus requiring more processing to find reasonable solutions - i.e. information overload. 

I had forgotten about this particular argument until earlier today, when the popular sitcom The Office (US, not the UK version) was not renewed for a new season. The sitcom was in a steep decline after Steve Carrell left (I'll go out on a limb and say that the decline started even earlier) and the announcement was greeted with comments of relieve by several friends. "Finally", they would say, expressing that it should have been cancelled years ago.

You certainly can relate to this behavior in many other situations. A crappy movie based on a popular book is released and fans all regret that the movie was ever made. Or a sequel (aham, Phantom Menace) turns out to be less than what was expected and everyone is thinking they should have left the original trilogy alone. A top actor does an unbelievable bad movie and we all feel he should have quit acting before that. For some reason only entertainment examples come to my mind, but you get the idea.

Psychologically, why do we have this reaction? The fact that there is a Phantom Menace should not reduce the value of Star Wars. Why is it that we can't ignore the latest movies, or the last couple of years of Carrell-less The Office? There is a parallel here with the agents in the Minority Game - we have more information, but we feel we are worse off by knowing more. And if we consider overall satisfaction with a franchise as the utility function, than we really are worse off. We can't choose to ignore what we know. "What has been seen cannot be unseen", goes a popular meme.

This must be related to an experiment mentioned in Daniel Kahneman's fantastic Thinking, Fast and Slow book. In this experiment, volunteers are asked to put a price in a set of items. Another group priced the exact same set added with a few broken items. For someone pricing both sets simultaneously, it wouldn't make sense to price the latter any less than the former. But what happens is that people give the set containing the extra broken items a much lower price. Adding items can reduce the overall price! 

Since price is induced by how much we value something, it is only natural that the same phenomena applies even when no explicit pricing is involved. Adding a few lower-than-average seasons reduce our general satisfaction towards otherwise great sitcoms. It may not be rational, but it is how we work nonetheless.

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This page contains a single entry by Ricardo published on August 21, 2012 9:24 PM.

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