Archive for December, 2008

Social Engineering: Mystery Guest Events

December 21, 2008

Market failure makes me sad. Surplus stolen. Transaction thwarted. As Pareto would say: “Inefficient!”

There are few more persistent market failures I can think of in my daily life than social interaction. I like meeting new people. You like meeting new people. But…. put us in the same room and chances are we won’t meet.

Why not?

Say we are at a party standing on opposite sides of the room. There are three reasons we WON’T talk to each other. Let’s call these the “Three Why Nots“:

Why Not 1) Randomness: Do I want to meet this person? Is this person actually worth my effort?
Why Not 2) Uncertain intention: Does that person want to meet me / anyone?
Why Not 3) Initiative: One of us has to “make a move”

In economics language the first two “Why Nots” are instances of information asymmetry: Each party not knowing exactly what the other is offering and what the other is seeking. The third Why Not is an example of a transaction cost: The “transaction” of us meeting incurs a cost of one of us having to introduce ourselves, which causes discomfort.

Transaction costs and information asymmetries are well-established culprits in causing market failures. But fortunately, economists have devised a few ways to overcome these barriers. I have become increasingly interested in using social engineering and the economic principles of “signaling” and “screening” to devise ways to vanquish the Three Why Nots. Here’s one example (also see Building a Better Bar).


“Mystery Guest” Events: Using signaling to overcome informational asymmetries and reduce transaction costs. I will describe two below.

(Like most edgy / genius ideas, this one came from Julia N.)

The Mystery Guest Dinner went like this: Julia, a third friend and I (the Hosts) each invited one friend that the others do not know (the Mystery Guests). The six people have a meal out. Each person either meets 2 or 4 new people that night.


The Mystery Guest Mixer went like this: Julia and I each asked 5 -7 of our friends that the other did not know (the Agents) to invite 2-3 of their friends (the Mystery Guests) to a wine cocktail party in my apartment. The result is a room full of people who know at most 4 other people (hosts excluded), but everyone knows at least one.



The elements shared by each event are a) no one knows anyone, b) everyone KNOWS that everyone wants to meet people, and c) each guest is hand-picked.

Let’s look at how these events help weaken the “Three Why Nots”

“Uncertain Intention” is easily overcome by d). Everyone in the room is there with the same intention and, just as importantly, everyone is aware of that fact. Compare this to a bar where a fraction of people are there to meet others and it is difficult to identity who is and who isn’t.

“Randomness” is also somewhat blunted by the invite-only premise of the event (c). You are maximum 4 degrees of separation from anyone in the room. And there is a strong social incentive to bring fun / cool / interesting / compatible Mystery Guests. Chances are good the Mystery Guests are worth your time.

“Initiative” is forced by a).There is no one to sit in the corner with! You have no choice but to talk to others. And it’s easier to meet others when everyone else is doing the same.

Overall, the events were a success. Everyone enjoyed themselves and I would guess most still have contact with at least one person they met that night. Compare that to your last night out in the Meatpacking.

Reader, I ask two things of you. Comment / email me more ideas to outmaneuver the “Three Why Nots.” And also email me if you want in on the next Mystery Guest event.


Recent random thoughts

December 2, 2008

1) I’m thinking about trading in my wardrobe for a set of custom-made commemorative t-shirts. Each would have an event and date written on the front (i.e. “Invisible Hand in Your Pants Launch”) and a commemorative quote on the back: (i.e. “The world is now grooved“). Every day wear a different shirt, fondly remember an event in your life, and start a conversion about it with someone. Then send your regrets to Banana Republic.


2) People do a really bad job retaining information and ideas. I craft brilliant speeches in the shower and have forgotten them by the time my pants are on. For every 10 interesting articles I read, I remember fewer than 2 a week later. Three ideas to better retain and capture information: 1) Keep a running list of ideas or interesting stuff on your computer and sync it to a Google Doc in the cloud.  The act of writing it down and an occasional scan is enough to keep it in your mind 2) Get voice note software on your mobile device to record those fleeting ideas as they come 3) If you must be old school, carry one of those reporters notebooks around everywhere.

3) What would you do if you had 2 months off from work (voluntary or otherwise)? If you can’t answer that question you need to take a day off and do some self-reflection.

4) Not to get all Tyler Cowen on you, but here’s a sentence to ponder:

Given that human beings are invariably diverse and that the knowledge at thier disposal is invariably limited, it would seem to follow that even societies in which unsophisticated people obey rudimentary rules will produce surprises and discontinuities — events that cannot be foreseen either through intuition or through the more conventional sorts of social science.

It’s from a thoroughly rewarding article that Catherine sent along here. The most famous example is the Schelling Model that predicts that even non-racists will still form segregated neighborhoods.

5) “Heisenberg was here… maybe” is the best piece of bathroom graffiti I’ve seen this month.

6) The fact that Chicago mantains a large human population in spite of the weather is a giant testament to how great the city is. San Diego would be abandoned within a month it were in the plains.