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“Kids on The Train Tracks” Problem And Design of Social Systems


A thinking exercise. Say there are two railroad tracks. One track is closed for use, another is in use. Five or six children are playing on the open track. One child is playing on the closed track.

A train is coming from away. The train blows the horn, but it’s not working. The train is too close now and the only option the driver has is to switch the tracks. Whether he should continue on the track he is on and hit five kids or whether he should switch temporarily to the closed track and hit the only kid there?

The quick reflex answer, a response grounded in humanity for most people, is to switch the tracks and hit one kid instead of five. Why not? The less casualties, the better. Right?

Here is a risk reward matrix that explains the decision.

Action Risk Reward
Take open track Kill more kids for sure 100% safety of train passengers, 100% guarantee that anyone who has followed instructions is safe.
Take closed track Risk train passengers, risk future confusion Kill less number of kids in short term.

On deeper thought, the kid playing on the closed track might have inquired which track is closed before playing there. He/she might have asked the train company and might have trusted in the answer they gave. If the lone kid has done his/her due diligence, then switching the tracks seems something very unfair, an injustice to the kid.

Even if the kid playing on the closed track had not confirmed the track closure, letting the train driver decide who lives and who dies creates a confusing and dangerous situation for future kids playing on the tracks. Kids do not have a firm rule to follow to decide where to play. They have to constantly make sure they are playing with bigger group of kids. Or they have to constantly scan the horizon for the oncoming train.

Also not to mention, the closed track might be dangerous for the train to travel on. When passengers board the train, they place their lives in the hands of train driver. The train driver made an implicit promise to them that he/she will them safe. Had the passengers known that the train driver might switch to a possibly risky tracks for humanitarian reasons, some of them might not have boarded the train.

So if the driver switches the tracks, the train passengers, the driver and collectively all kids are left with no clear strategies, clear rules, to make their life decisions.  There is something peculiar happening here. Any line of thought that insists on the train switching track to hit the lone kid makes the decision process dependent on outcome of the decision, i.e. more kids should survive, and has no place for the interests of people involved in decision making process, i.e. the stakeholders, the driver and passengers in this case.

This makes the decision making process complicated for everyone and opens up areas for conflict of interest. In such case, people feel an acute, unexplained sense of discomfort. They do not feel confident. They do not feel in control of their own destiny, something very detrimental to social trust. It leads to everyone preparing for worst case scenario, taking extra steps to reduce their risk, not putting trust in the rules and systems. This lack of social trust, a sense of unfair world, leads to far more casualties in future.

Why fairness is so important? Because the sense of unfair treatment plays on our very primal instincts. In one of the psychological experiment, researchers rewarded two monkeys differently for the same action. For doing the same task, one monkey was rewarded with one raisin,  and the other with five raisins. The monkey that got one raisin should ideally have taken it, because refusing it earns him nothing. But that monkey refused the raisin, showing that even animals notice unfair treatment.

“Fair” system works far better than a “good” system or “beneficial” system in the long run. This is the primary distinction between the two major types of social systems in the world today. A system that guarantees privilages, like socialism and a system that guarantees freedom, like real capitalism (not bailout capitalism). A system that guarantees “larger group of people will survive” guarantees privilage of survival. Whereas a system that guarantees “if you follow rules, you will not die” guarantees you a level of trust, making your decision making simpler, enabling you more choices and thus guaranteeing your freedom. You can still choose to die, but that is your own choice and other people are not put in danger because of you.

This is why Western societies made so much progress. Ideals advocated in revolutions like French and American revolutions, justice and liberty, stressed more on fairness and guaranteeing freedom. Conversely the socialist slogans like “rule of farmers/workers” attempted to guarantee privilages to particular classes in society for a short term. But the guarantee was artificial and soon collapsed.

Both types of revolutions began to correct a society that was unfair to begin with. But socialism/ communism overcompensated and created unfairness from the opposite direction.

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One Response

  1. The closed-track was default option at several levels in India.

    (1) At the level of governance, incidents like Kidnapping of Sayeed or Kandahar hijiacking reflected this. This seems to have been somewhat remedied at a policy level by Mumbai attacks. This is welcome change.

    (2) On social trust, very well put. Lack of it incentivizes disorder and shortcuts. When vigilantism is the money-making sentiment in box office, you know the system is on “closed-track” , leaving the population to pray for and adore superheroes.

    To extend your point a little bit : When one opts for “closed-track”, it doesn’t matter whether it is for moral or corrupt reasons. Damage is same

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