Scott Alexander’s game theory sequence ends with a catalogue of beautifully dirty tricks, ways to design bizarre incentive structures that can force your enemies to act in your interests. My favorite example involves meeting design: by making a particular convoluted proposal, you can get an entire committee full of rational, self-interested people to resign.

Let’s talk about a meeting I attended.

I recently went to a conference called ICSE. ICSE has a “steering committee” that makes major administrative decisions. One of their decisions (called “limit-3”), which they announced shortly before this year’s conference, proved rather controversial, so they arranged a town hall meeting during the conference, a place where all the attendees could voice their opinions. The first half of the meeting had this format:

  1. Audience member criticizes limit-3.
  2. Committee member explains why that won’t be a big issue, or why it’s outweighed by limit-3’s benefits.
  3. Repeat.

Perhaps I was hyperalert because of this game theory sequence, but… notice: nowhere in this cycle does the committee have a good opportunity to say, “huh, good point, we hadn’t thought of that – maybe we should reconsider.” Even if brilliant unforeseen objection after brilliant unforeseen objection had been raised, the effect of the meeting would have been that the committee got more and more entrenched in support of limit-3, defending it against all challengers.

I suspect that this format was designed by somebody who liked limit-3.