Messy games

Messy games

Exams are over now. Finally, the pain has subsided. I would sigh in utter relief, if it was not for one problem. I have a demon that always hangs over me: my messy room.

The piles of books and lectures notes. My unmade bed, the blankets hurled across the room. All my clothes tossed onto the floor. It is monstrous. I have never been a ‘neat’ person, but over exams, my room takes a life of its own. I’m sure many of my fellow students can relate.

Unsurprisingly, my mother is not pleased. She has told me to clean, and she has yelled at me, but to no avail. She has even tried to clean it herself and has tried to ignore it as well. Nothing works for her, and my room (though improved) is still not clean.

Last summer, my mum and I played a little game. In economic theory, it would be a sequential game. She made an ultimatum: I had one week to clean my room properly, or else. So the game was played out like this.

Of course, the rational decision for me was to clean my room, as if I didn’t, my mum would punish me severely. But, the week came and went, and I did little. She got very mad. My punishment? I could not use the car for two weeks. But, why didn’t I just clean up my room to avoid all this?

Short-termism. It is a very common disease that affects many of us. For some reason, in regards to cleaning, short term gain outweighs long term happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like having a messy room. After a while, I realised it has negative externalities: a cluttered room makes me feel claustrophobic and sluggish and of course, my mother’s wrath is not great either. But the marginal benefit of ignoring the mess in the present outweighs the marginal cost of cleaning it up. It’s classic procrastination; ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’. But for a few weeks, I did not have a car. So maybe it was not such a good idea.

Another reason why my room is so messy is its size. Compared to my friends’ rooms, mine looks like a shoe box. The supply of space in my room is minimal, but the demand is quite high. I have too little storage, but too much stuff! So I could be smart about how I organise my room, cull my possessions and constantly clean, but of course, I wouldn’t do that, would I? My space shortage in conjunction with my short-term nature causes only chaos.

So how can my mother entice me to clean my room in the future? Next time my room gets messy (probably during my next exam period), she should take a different approach. To combat my short-termism, my mum needs to change the rules of the game in order to get a proper response from me. She would have to act at the same time as me, instead of us acting sequentially. So, a simultaneous game may be more appropriate in this situation.

In this situation, the Nash equilibrium is for me to clean my room and for my mum to praise me. While the two games are similar, waiting for me to clean my room won’t make me do it, even if there is threat of punishment. I know, from experience, that I do not clean my room until my sentence is already in place (being the responsible young adult that I am).

Instead of giving me time, she should make her punishment instant or even pre-emptive. This, inadvertently, is just what she did, though not on purpose…

Firstly, let me first explain. There is much higher risk with a messy room: risk of losing things. I know this all too well. After exams, I had tickets to two parties. In a vain attempt to get my room under control, my mum tidied while I was in my last exam. While just trying to be helpful, she accidentally threw out both tickets, because they were tossed on the floor. I am not inherently a risk-loving person, I am steadfastly risk averse. Missing out on parties because of my messy room: I am not happy with that. While losing the tickets was a sunk cost, the opportunity cost of her cleaning is my losing other important things. So the marginal cost – the risk of losing something else important – is greater than the marginal benefit of not having to clean my room for one more day.

So, finally, it’s time to clean up my act.