Standing Up in a Crowded Theater, Studying for Tests, and Other Game-Theoretic Dilemmas

Everyone is sitting down in a crowded theater, comfortably seated and with a good view. All is well until one person decides his view is not good enough, so he stands up to get a clearer view. This ruins other peoples’ views, so they stand up as well. A while later, everyone is standing up but has the same view as before, resulting in each being in a position strictly worse than when everyone was sitting.

This particular example is typically avoided since the social norm in a theater is to sit. In fact, in numerous examples of this game, there are either direct (laws) or indirect (social norms) methods of control to prevent such disasters from happening. Here are two for illustration:

  • Crime. If one person stole a little, this person would be in a better position and society would not be harmed by much. However, if everyone did this, society would collapse. The criminalization of theft prevents this problem (for the most part). This concept applies to many types of crimes.
  • Environmentalism. If one person polluted more, there would be virtually no change to the environment. However, if everyone did so, the environment would feel the full effects. (This still isn’t quite resolved, but in most developed countries it is well on its way.)

From a game-theoretic perspective, however, each individual taking the selfish path is making a rational decision. The problem is that the system may not discourage the selfish activity sufficiently.

Someone who doesn’t recycle may (justifiably) argue that they do in fact care about the environment, but that the impact of their not recycling is negligible to the environment. While this is true, if everyone thought like this, then we would all be standing up in the theater. The main point of this post to go over some less commonly cited situations.

Studying for Tests

I would argue that studying for a test falls into the category of standing up in a theater. From both high school and college, I have observed or have heard of people studying hours upon hours for tests and often barely remembering any of the material after a semester. A test should measure how well you understand something, not how well you can memorize and cram facts into your brain for the next day.

People who know me from high school and college know I don’t study much (if at all, depending on the class) for tests. Perhaps some see this as a sign of not caring, but I would argue that I care about the knowledge just as much, if not more, than people who study far greater hours. In the cases where I do study, I go for the “why” rather than the “what,” and I study to load the concepts into long-term memory, rather than the details into short-term memory. If you do need the details at a later time, cram it in then when it is relevant and when you have the big-picture understanding.

Let’s pretend that studying for tests were not allowed. Then what would a test measure? Would it measure how much attention someone paid in lecture? How well they comprehended the main points? What part of the homework they didn’t copy from someone else?

In fact, everyone’s grades would still be similar. In classes where grades are curved, if everyone does “worse” on a test the same way, then the grades will be unaffected (though there may be some shifting around). The tests would just become more genuine.

So it may seem like I have something against studying for tests. But what part specifically of studying for tests do I have an issue with? Well, as mentioned before, I think if everyone studied for tests, it makes the test scores more a measure of who studied the most and who could cram in material the most efficiently, instead of who actually understood the content. But even if this problem were somehow irrelevant—letsay an irrefutable study comes out tomorrow saying that cramming ability is just as relevant for the real world as understanding—I would still have an issue with studying, namely the time spent. Suppose someone is taking 4 classes and studies 4 hours for each midterm and 8 hours for each final. That’s 48 hours spent studying in a semester. Multiply that by 8 semesters to get 16 days spent on studying. These 16 days are the difference between sitting down and standing up.

Preparing for Colleges/Job Interviews

Sure, the informative power of some of the tests I’ve mentioned above may be arguably above zero. For example, maybe it’s feasible that a dedicated premed student university should cram before a bio test because the details do matter, though the question remains of whether such a student will remember anything years later. But there’s still one very important test taken all around the country that really has no arguable intellectual merit: the SAT.

This test is probably the biggest insult to intelligence when taken seriously. I try my hardest to resist cringing whenever I hear smart people talking about their SAT scores. From the CollegeBoard site:

The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a suite of tools designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that’s fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.

Yes, I’m sure it’s very “fair to all students.”

sat-scores-by-wealthAnd I’m sure that by “keep[ing] pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century,” what CollegeBoard means is that the skills required for success in today’s world are… wealth, certain racial backgrounds, and access to prep courses.

Anyways, I guess my point is that if nobody studied for the SAT, nobody took prep courses, and no one cared so much, then:

  • Students wouldn’t be wasting their time studying for it.
  • Many families would save time and money on SAT prep by not having to do it.
  • As a result, less privileged students would stand a better chance, and thus the test would be more fair.

Of course, while this may sound good, it is easier said than done. To not study would be shooting yourself in the foot, or in this case, to sit down in the theater in which everyone is standing. It would be like one country’s reducing its greenhouse emissions while other countries are not decreasing theirs.

(Personally, I refused to study for the SAT, though at the time I had to give off the impression that I was studying for it to appease my Asian parents. If you really want the story, it’s in the latter part of this post.)

I would go further to say that preparing for job interviews in some ways fits this type of game. On this subject, however, I have very little experience as my only important interviews were of the type where it would be very difficult to prepare for, i.e., math puzzles. Answering such questions did not hinge on knowing certain advanced equations, but instead on using simple tools that almost everyone knows, in unusual ways.

In addition, I understand that an interview not only judges the answers to the questions, but also the interviewee’s character. If it is evident that someone prepared a lot for an interview, that fact in itself would be considered in the interviewer’s assessment. However, I think that in a world in which no one prepared for interviews, both sides would benefit as the interviewee would save time and stress while the interviewer gets a more genuine view of the interviewee, not a carefully constructed outer shell.

And for a preemptive defense, to the claim that studying or preparing is simply a result of competition, I have nothing against capitalism or competition. If anything, freeing up students’ time from studying for tests would make them be able to compete in other areas, and be able to take additional classes or learn new skills (I picked up programming while pretending to study for the SAT). I see the time wasted as an inefficiency. The point of not studying is to have more time, and hence be more productive.

Sitting down in a standing theater is a difficult decision. But if everyone sat down, we might all live in a better place.

6 thoughts on “Standing Up in a Crowded Theater, Studying for Tests, and Other Game-Theoretic Dilemmas”

  1. But how does one take the initiative to sit down when everyone else is standing, when it won’t beget any change from the standers? How do you move outside of the Nash disequilibrium?

    I guess if we had the answers to these, we’d be winning Nobels.


    1. I think for the really important things like the environment, it’s more of a “How do I get everyone else to sit down” than “How do I sit down?” E.g. an environmental treaty will have significant impact only if every nation in the world signs it and takes the required actions (can’t have a Kyoto Protocol with major exceptions like the United States, India, and China). Not sure how to convince (or possibly coerce) other nations to sign though.


  2. You post the graph of SAT scores vs. income level and claim that is is evidence that the SAT is obviously biased as a result of wealthy parents spending more on SAT prep. However, you do not seem to consider the alternative conclusion that wealthier people tend to be smarter and have smarter children. In reality, there is significant evidence that (1) SAT scores correlate with intelligence and that (2) intelligence correlates with higher income


    1. But the question is, is there a 1 correlation? In addition, the measures of g were obtained by different tests, which could have other biases. For your argument to hold, there would have to be 0 (post-adjusted) correlation between amount of SAT prep and SAT scores, as my argument only relies on there being a greater-than-0 correlation. I never argued that SAT scores are uncorrelated with intelligence; in fact, in the article I said that if everyone took the SAT without studying, then that would be a fairer measure of intelligence. You have not in any way refuted my argument that SAT prep biases one’s score.

      In addition, if you really think that the SAT is a perfect measure of intelligence and that preparation doesn’t help, then why do you think many smart people study for it, shelling out hundreds of dollars in test prep?

      Edit: Your second link seems to be on the impact of IQ on one’s own income, not the effect of one’s family’s income on one’s IQ.


      1. My post was not an argument against the central idea of your post about competition, (although your proposal is hopelessly utopian and will never happen for obvious reasons) but a critique of your treatment of standardized testing. The notion that standardized tests are biased just because they correlate with familial income and different racial backgrounds shows you clearly have not read the literature on the subject.

        If you look elsewhere on that wikipedia page you can see that the literature is unequivocal on the fact that IQ is both heritable to a significant degree and correlated with income.


        1. I thought it was obvious that IQ is part heritable/part environmental. Just because I didn’t talk about something explicitly in the article does not mean I am unaware of it. Is your next point going to be to tell me to read up on the global warming/environment Wikipedia articles since in the article I did not explicitly mention how increased CO2 production or pollution leads to harm to the environment? Should I explicitly mention why standing is worse than sitting, since it expends more energy and is less comfortable?

          And if you argue that standardized tests are not biased, then again (since you have not answered it), why do many smart families pay for and spend so much time on SAT prep? Just because they can’t find anything else to spend money on?

          In addition, I’m still not really sure what the point of your comments is. They don’t really relate to the article, and your primary argument (which you seem to be proud of) is to strawman my argument as if I said “ONLY income has an effect on SAT scores,” which I clearly did not say, given that I in fact said SAT scores would be more fair if no one studied for it. Finally, given your IP address, odds are that you have taken the SAT. Did you come from a well-off family or prepare a ton for the SAT, and somehow the clear results of studies show that you’re expected to get a higher score anyways? Does this article detract from your self-perceived intelligence? Are you offended by the suggestion that part of your SAT score is explained by preparation and not by your intelligence? This is just pure speculation, but I’m interested to know what provoked you to respond to this article with such pointless comments.


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