How This GPS App Uses Incentives To Overcome The Bystander Effect

Ultimately, many people acting in their own self-interest help add value to society at large.

Anyone hoping to bypass terrible traffic has likely turned to crowd-sourced data to find a way. Mobile apps like Waze allow drivers and passengers to update other motorists with real-time roadway conditions. So, why do drivers take on an obligation to update an app after passing an inconvenience? The answer is incentive.

One might expect drivers to think only about themselves on the road. If you hit terrible traffic, why is it your responsibility to notify the people miles behind you? This question calls to mind a form of the bystander effect, where drivers may avoid action on the assumption others will act.

The Bystander Effect

In psychology, the bystander effect refers to people’s disinterest or apathy toward helping someone in distress when others are around. The strength of the effect is linked to the number of other bystanders. In theory, each individual assumes that someone else will stop or assist. Fittingly, when more people are present, individuals are more apt to believe someone will render aid, relinquishing him or herself of any sense of affirmative duty.

Most drivers pass by abandoned vehicles, roadside repairs, and even accidents. Why, then, are drivers so keen to feed data into an app? Why do they not assume other drivers on the road will update the construction zones, police sightings, and potholes? While the bystander effect is largely still in effect on the roadways in a traditional sense (stopping to help), Waze uses self-interest to overcome it when it comes to communicating with others.

Network effects improve the efficiency, efficacy, or function of an activity by having more participants.

It turns out that drivers are thinking about themselves when they add data to Waze. They are thinking about themselves being in the same position. Essentially, Waze taps into drivers’ sense of the Golden Rule—doing for others what they hope people will do for them. And the more people on the road, the more people there are to apply the Golden Rule.

Waze only works due to network effects—somewhat of an inverse of the bystander effect. Whereas in traditional bystander effects a greater number actually makes the problem worse because each individual is more convinced someone else will act, network effects are essential for certain activities. Network effects improve the efficiency, efficacy, or function of an activity by having more participants. It is the economic bedrock to the maxim “the more the merrier.” With more participants, more value is created.

Social Media for Driving

Social media is a prime example. With only a few account holders, Facebook and Twitter would simply be private chat rooms. With thousands, they would have dynamic content to filter. With millions, they allow people to meet and interact with total strangers and add value through humor, political interests, advertisements, and more.

Like a social media platform, Waze only works if many people are using it, and it has more value the more people do. One might expect that with many people using it, fewer would feel obligated to contribute. But the opposite is true. Many people obtain their own benefit from the app and add data so it will continue to be useful. It is an investment in the application’s success and the user’s own future travel.

Ultimately, many people acting in their own self-interest help add value to society at large.

Adding information is in one’s self-interest, and many likely do it without regard at all for others’ commutes. Rather, they do it so that it will be there for them. Unlike the bystander effect, which leads people to ignore a problem under the assumption that someone else will tend to it—with no material benefit to the passerby—Waze allows individuals to invest in their own future experience so they have a stake in the process. Ultimately, many people acting in their own self-interest help add value to society at large.

The next time you check Waze or pass an abandoned vehicle, think about yourself and let others know. Not only will you have better data to navigate traffic in the future, but the improved road data may also lead to better maintenance and safer roads.

Further Reading

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