Thursday night attendance at the El Farol Bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico - The El Farol bar problem is a problem in game theory. Based on a bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it was created in 1994 by W. Brian Arthur.

Thursday night attendance at the El Farol Bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico - The El Farol bar problem is a problem in game theory. Based on a bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it was created in 1994 by W. Brian Arthur.

This is something that you face it in everyday life, be it on bars, restaurants, supermarket cues or in highways. Buying a house or selling it. So, have a look and decide for yourself! The problem is as follows: There is a particular, finite population of people. Every Thursday night, all of these people want to go to the El Farol Bar. However, the El Farol is quite small, and it’s no fun to go there if it’s too crowded. So much so, in fact, that the following rules are in place:

  • If less than 60% of the population go to the bar, they’ll all have a better time than if they stayed at home.
  • If more than 60% of the population go to the bar, they’ll all have a worse time than if they stayed at home.

Unfortunately, it is necessary for everyone to decide at the same time whether they will go to the bar or not. They cannot wait and see how many others go on a particular Thursday before deciding to go themselves on that Thursday.

One aspect of the problem is that, no matter what method each person uses to decide if they will go to the bar or not, if everyone uses the same method it is guaranteed to fail. If everyone uses the same deterministic method, then if that method suggests that the bar will not be crowded, everyone will go, and thus it will be crowded; likewise, if that method suggests that the bar will be crowded, nobody will go, and thus it will not be crowded. Often the solution to such problems in game theory is to permit each player to use a mixed strategy, where a choice is made with a particular probability. In the case of the El Farol Bar problem, however, no mixed strategy exists that all players may use in equilibrium.

[…] Consider now a problem I will construct to illustrate inductive reasoning and how it might be modeled. N people decide independently each week whether to go to a bar that offers entertainment on a certain night. For concreteness, let us set N at 100. Space is limited, and the evening is enjoyable if things are not too crowded–specifically, if fewer than 60% of the possible 100 are present. There is no way to tell the numbers coming for sure in advance, therefore a person or agent: goes–deems it worth going–if he expects fewer than 60 to show up, or stays home if he expects more than 60 to go. (There is no need that utility differ much above and below 60.) Choices are unaffected by previous visits; there is no collusion or prior communication among the agents; and the only information available is the numbers who came in past weeks. (The problem was inspired by the bar El Farol in Santa Fe which offers Irish music on Thursday nights; but the reader may recognize it as applying to noontime lunch-room crowding, and to other coordination problems with limits to desired coordination.) Of interest is the dynamics of the numbers attending from week to week.

Notice two interesting features of this problem. First, if there were an obvious model that all agents could use to forecast attendance and base their decisions on, then a deductive solution would be possible. But this is not the case here. Given the numbers attending in the recent past, a large number of expectational models might be reasonable and defensible. Thus, not knowing which model other agents might choose, a reference agent cannot choose his in a well-defined way. There is no deductively rational solution–no “correct” expectational model. From the agents’ viewpoint, the problem is ill-defined and they are propelled into a world of induction. Second, and diabolically, any commonalty of expectations gets broken up: If all believe few will go, all will go. But this would invalidate that belief. Similarly, if all believe most will go, nobody will go, invalidating that belief. Expectations will be forced to differ.

At this stage, I invite the reader to pause and ponder how attendance might behave dynamically over time. Will it converge, and if so to what? Will it become chaotic? How might predictions be arrived at? […]

in “Inductive Reasoning and Bounded Rationality” (The El Farol Problem), by W. Brian Arthur, 1994.

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