Opinion: Color blind (Ignoring traffic lights)

POSTED: 10/4/11 12:28 PM

We have been able to establish personally that most, if not all, motorists passing through Dutch Quarter these days are utterly and hopelessly color blind. Infrastructural upgrades have forced the contractor to install traffic light at a point near the Tan Tan supermarket where there is only one lane left for traffic. Believe it or not, these traffic lights are actually working properly, so the light changes from green to orange and red, and back to green at set intervals.

In spite of years of overdevelopment, St. Maarten does not have a lot of traffic lights. In fact, the only ones that come to mind are stationed at the junction near the Prince Bernhard Bridge in Philipsburg. It is therefore fair to say that motorists are not used to traffic lights, which is something else than not understanding the meaning of green, orange and red.

Still, this lack of understanding is demonstrated in Dutch Quarter every day. Didn’t Justice Minister Duncan recently say something like, “Our education level is pretty high?” We’re not going to argue that point here, but we suspect that the finer points of how to deal with traffic lights is missing in most school curricula, and in the stuff people learn at local driving schools.

People barreling down Mount William Hill on their way home after a hard day’s work arrive at the bottleneck in Dutch Quarter and then two things are possible: they get stuck, or they are able to drive straight through.

When they are stuck, they are stuck for a long time and as they approach the traffic lights, they will see them change from green, to orange to red and back to green several times before they get the opportunity to go through. Obviously, motorists coming from the opposite side are not respecting the red light. They squeeze through behind the last car that went though orange, and they get more followers than the idiotic number of friends some people have on Facebook.

In fact, as long as there is no oncoming car blocking the road, all cars will keep driving through.

The motorists on the other end slowly but surely get peeved. But when it is their turn, they do exactly the same.

Altruism, as we all know, is a concern for the welfare of others. In Wikipedia-speak: It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of ‘others’ toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness. The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others.

Fast-forward to Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s sequel to Freakonomics. The authors write about two laboratory games, called Ultimatum and Dictator. Both experiments surfaced in the eighties and were designed to establish levels of altruism.

The Ultimatum game goes like this: two players get a onetime chance to split $20. Player 1 gets the $20 and the assignment to split it anyway he likes with the other player. Player 2 must decide to accept or reject the offer. If he accepts, they split the money according to the offer. If he rejects, both players get nothing.

Economists reason that even one penny is better than nothing and that player 1 ought to offer that penny and keep $19.99 for himself. But the experiment showed differently: Players 2 routinely refused offers below $3, and players 1 routinely offered (on average) $6.

The Dictator game is a variation on Ultimatum: it gave player 1 the choice to split the $20 evenly, or to offer player 2 $2 and keep $18. Player 2 had no say in the matter. Three out of four participants in this experiment decided to split the money evenly. Levitt and Dubner say this is an amazing outcome.

A man who thought this was even more amazing if not downright unbelievable is a man from Wisconsin called John List. The son of a truck driver, he went to college and became an economist. And he also became a staunch critic of lab experiments. List took the Ultimatum and Dictator games to the next level by testing them in the real world.

We won’t bore you with the details of how he went about it at a baseball-card show in Virginia, but we’ll share his findings with you. In a controlled environment, card-dealers and customers acted fairly: customers made fairly high offers and the dealers offered cards of the appropriate value.

But when List repeated the same experiment on the trading floor while dealers were not aware of being part of an experiment, the results changed drastically. They ripped off their customers like there was no tomorrow.

What does this have to do with color blind motorists in Dutch Quarter? Well, List’s experiments show that altruism does not run very deep in the veins of humankind, as Levitt and Dubner express it. It shows at a baseball-card show in Virginia and it shows every day in a traffic situation in Dutch Quarter.

If people were truly altruistic, they would not dream of running a red light. Because by doing so, they know that they are short-changing the guy (or the lady) on the other end that is waiting for his or her turn to pass. In other words: selfishness rules.

So the traffic situation in Dutch Quarter is not just about cars and a lack of understanding for the way traffic lights function. It is about who we truly are.

Is it a pretty picture that emerges from all this? Is this how we want to live our lives? We’ll let our readers be the judge of that.

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