If you observe a busy intersection from the upper floors of an office high-rise, the herding behavior of our species is immediately apparent. What appears at street level to be the random behavior of drivers and pedestrians takes on the appearance of a tribal dance. There is the rapid movement of vehicles back and forth along one axis until they halt in unison at the intersection to allow vehicles to proceed in the same fashion along the perpendicular axis. At precise intervals, vehicles halt along both axes to allow pedestrians to swarm across the intersection. The movement of pedestrians stops as quickly as it began, and the entire cycle begins anew.
When viewed from a distance, our behavior may resemble that of a flock of birds or a school of fish more closely than we might care to acknowledge. How is it that such creatures are able to move in perfect formation, adjusting their speed and direction instantaneously, as if they were a single organism? Researchers once suspected that some sort of electromagnetic current might be at work within the flock to enable individuals to synchronize their movements. However, it turns out that flocking behavior is actually the result of many near-simultaneous adjustments in velocity and direction as each individual seeks to avoid collisions and to stay to formation. Even the most complex maneuvers of a flock can be reduced to a simple algorithm and simulated on a computer.
The resemblance to human behavior at a busy intersection now becomes more apparent. The intricate dance of traffic may not be as obvious at street level as it is from our high-rise vantage point. However, if we are behind the wheel of a car or crossing the street as a pedestrian, we are well aware of the individual adjustments we must make in velocity and direction to avoid collisions and stay in formation. No matter how chaotic the scene during rush hour, the flow of traffic is governed by a simple algorithm: stop on the red, and go on the green.
It occurs to me that the same few rules that get you safely through rush-hour traffic can be successfully applied to most areas of life. We burden ourselves unduly with the complexity of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our minds are prone to ponder numerous choices at every turn, but the immediate situation usually yields its own imperative. Do I put on the brake or hit the accelerator? Which way do I steer to avoid a collision and stay in formation? Is the light red, or is it green? Follow the path of single necessity, as Annie Dillard might say, and before you know it, you’ve arrived safely at your destination.
“Living Like Weasels,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard