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Focal Points and Affairs to Remember

Taeku Lee's picture

What do the ongoing social revolution in Cairo, Egypt and the 1957 movie, An Affair to Remember, have in common? 

The answer: Thomas Schelling

It has been nearly impossible not to watch transfixed to a television or listen raptly by a radio to the unfolding news about the demands of Egyptians from all walks of life for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.  One aspect of this remarkable bottom-up demand for accountability has thus far received little attention: Why Tahrir Square?

In many seemingly spontaneous instances of popular uprising, the defining events involve a central, physical site where bodies and voices converge to be seen and heard as one.  In June 2008, some 80,000 South Koreans jammed into a plaza in front of Seoul's City Hall to protest U.S. beef imports.  In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks converged on Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, to protest Burma's autocratic military regime.  On April 30, 1977, 14 mothers clad in white shawls embroidered with names gathered at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina demanding to know the whereabouts of their abducted children.  And so on.

More than 50 years ago, Schelling first formalized his intuition about positive-sum games.  In his classic work, The Strategy of Conflict, the Nobel laureate in economics described the idea of a "focal point."  The basic logic is that when two strangers need to coordinate on a common expectation—like where to meet for a mass protest—they will have every incentive to think of someplace obvious, so much so that two strangers will not only think it is obvious themselves, but also know that it is obvious to the other person.  That common expectation is a focal point.

A good example of the need for focal points arises in Leo McCarey's tear-jerker, An Affair to Remember. The blossoming love affair between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is cut short as their trans-Atlantic liner readies for port in New York.  Needing to confront the prior relationships and sobering realities that await them, the couple agrees to rekindle their romance six months hence, but need to coordinate on a rendezvous site.  Grant turns to Kerr and says, "how about the top of the Empire State Building?" to which Kerr responds, "oh yes, that's perfect!  It is the nearest thing to heaven that we have in New York."

In the language of economists, focal points are equilibrium solutions in coordination games.  What makes them interesting to Schelling is that the solutions cannot be formally derived from the structure of the game.  In Schelling's words, "One cannot, without empirical evidence, deduce what understandings can be perceived in a non-zero sum game of maneuver any more than one can prove, by purely formal deduction, that a particular joke is bound to be funny."  To know how focal point equilibria come to be selected, Schelling argues that we need to understand human psychology.  (This prescience about the relevance of psychology to game theory, notably, anticipates the current field of behavioral economics.)

While a full discussion of what makes for a good focal point is beyond scope of this blog entry, here are some inchoate, armchair thoughts on what helps to make Tahrir Square an equilibrium solution for discontented Egyptians.  Among the characteristics that seem relevant are:


  • Salience: an ideal focal point should be known to all and easily accessible in one's memory banks.  While Tahrir Square may not equal the examples Schelling draws upon in The Strategy of Conflict in salience (he cites the Grand Central Station in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris), it is clearly one of the major public squares in Cairo.
  • Context: focal points solutions should also be mission specific when possible.  Ask two strangers who know only that the other person is an avid basketball fan where they should meet in New York, and they might well choose Madison Square Garden and not the Empire State Building or Grand Central Station.  The choice of Tahrir Square seems even more obvious, beyond mere salience, when its historic and symbolic context is taken into consideration.  It is the site of historic events like the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots and the 2003 protests against the War in Iraq.  Symbolically, tahrir translates into liberation, and it is a public square in which one finds the Mogamma government building, the Headquarters of the Arab League, and the National Democratic Party headquarters.
  • Accessibility: to effectively overcome collective action problems and coordinate mass action, a good focal point should also be accessible.  Note that Tahrir Square is essentially a large traffic circle where many roads come together.  It is also adjacent to the Sadat Station of the Cairo Metro.  Also, to the extent that popular uprisings often involve a vanguard of young intellectuals, Tahrir Square is also home to the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo.


Taken together, these three elements of Tahrir Square point to what is ultimately, from the standpoint of game theory, perhaps the most important characteristic for a focal point solution to have—namely, uniqueness.  The demonstrations that began January 25th could not have successfully commanded the attention of the Mubarak regime and spellbound the eyes of the world had the 15,000 protesters spread themselves over a half dozen possible sites around Cairo.

A final passing observation is that technological changes since the days of celluloid romances with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr have probably dramatically diminished the need for a collectivity to coordinate on focal points en masse.  While a long time will likely lapse before the dust settles on the debate over whether mass uprisings in Iran in 2009 and in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt this year really amount to a "twitter revolution," it is clear that tweets, multi-media texts, blogs, and the like have a dramatic and catalytic effect on information cascades.  Mass protests are unlikely to ever start without an initial group of leaders who coordinate on things like a common venue for their mass demonstration.  But for a new generation of tech-savvy cyber-activists, once that initial "bandwagon effect" begins, new media technologies will do the rest.

Photo Credit: Flickr user monasosh

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