Braess’s Paradox and Experiential Marketing

People waiting in line
Opening another register won't help.

Braess’s paradox states that adding extra capacity to a network, when the moving entities selfishly choose their route, can in some cases reduce overall performance.  This is because the Nash equilibrium of such a system is not necessarily optimal.  The paradox has generally been applied to traffic, but more and more agencies are finding that that the paradox can also be applied to social gatherings as well.

Formulated in 1968 by Dietrich Braess, the paradox is not a true paradox, but rather a counter-intuitive finding regarding an everyday situation.  The concept was that in an urban area with a lot of traffic, adding a new road to distribute the traffic may seem like a sensible idea, but just the opposite occurs – a new route added in a transportation network increases the travel times of all individual travelers.

In the past few years, scientists have hypothesized that, under higher demands, the new route is no longer used due to a “wisdom of crowds” effect.  Anna Nagurney at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has proven this hypothesis.  She has derived a formula that shows that an increase in demand guarantees that the new route will not be used and will no longer increase travel times.  In other words, the Braess paradox holds only for a specific range of demand.  The new formula developed by Nagurney is applicable to any network in which the Braess paradox originally occurs (which isn’t limited to traffic).  In a sense, the negation of the paradox actually adds to the paradox’s original conclusions – when designing networks, extreme caution should be used in adding new routes, since at worst the new routes will slow travelers down, and at best, the new routes won’t even be used.

At bloomfield knoble, we have been part of several experiential marketing projects – specifically the development of museums and similar amusement arenas.  One of the most significant challenges in developing experiential marketing is manipulation of perceived wait times.  In a museum setting, you don’t want people to feel like they are standing in line too long, but you don’t want to move them along so quickly that they feel the entire experience was wasted.  Determining optimal wait time is a subject for a different entry.  What is appropriate here is the understanding that in order to negate the Braess paradox, routes should be predetermined.  Bottom line – don’t let people choose their routes.

This is not about attention-getting – there are a ton of ways to direct people towards where you want them to go (think Vegas casinos).  We’re talking specifically about development of routes of action that force people down a pre-determined path.  Remember, the Braess paradox only applies when the moving entities selfishly choose their route.  By eliminating choice, the Nash equilibrium doesn’t have to apply.  Again, we’re only talking about the development of the route – not the enjoyment of the route.  Start with a single, pre-determined course, and you can control the entire flow (as determined by time) of traffic.

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