In the U.S. being on time is the rule. In other places, such as Latin America punctuality is rare. Why? Social psychologists have ascribed the differences to deep cultural facts, religion, and “national personalities.” One theory, for example, has it that the changing of the seasons in more northern latitudes induces a greater respect for time – plant a little late or early and frost will wipe out your crop.

In Punctuality: A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium game theorists Kaushik Basu and Jorgen Weibull make a simple but important point. If I think you are going to be late then it’s costly for me to be on time so I will choose to be late. But if I choose to be late then it makes sense for you to choose to be late also. Indeed, if I think that you think that I might be late then I will be late! In other words, lateness is a Nash equilibrium of a game. Punctuality is also an equilibrium. If you are going to be on time it make sense for me to be on time also (especially if you can punish me for not being on time.) Which equilibrium is played can be as arbitrary as the forces that determine which side of the road we drive on. Basu and Weibull write:

A social scientist who neglects the strategic aspect may be tempted to believe that if two societies exhibit sharply different behaviors, then they must have innate differences, such as different preferences or different religious outlooks on life or different genes. What we have just seen is that none of this is necessary. Some of the ‘cultural’ differences that we observe across societies could simply be manifestations of different equilibria in otherwise identical societies.

If the theory is correct then it should be possible, with a one-time push, to change an entire people from tardy to punctual virtually overnight in much the same way that Sweden switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road (precisely at 5am, by the way, on Sunday morning, September 3, 1967).

The theory is currently being tested in Ecuador, a country where, according to some estimates, habitual lateness costs 4.3 percent of GDP! Thus a national campaign is aiming to change the equilibrium.

Hundreds of institutions ranging from local councils to airlines have signed up to a promise to keep to time. Stragglers are barred from entering meetings. Hotel-style door signs have appeared in offices and schools. On one side, they say “Come in: You’re on time” and on the other “Do not enter: the meeting began on time.” A local newspaper is publishing a daily list of public officials who turn up late to events.

In related news, physicists are now measuring time in attoseconds, one quintillionth (10E-18) of a second.


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