Here’s a situation you might’ve found yourself in: you go out for dinner with a group of friends and, before ordering, decide the bill will be split equally. Were you alone, or paying only for what you yourself ate, you’d probably order the least expensive option available (within reason), but what you really want to order is about ten dollars more than the item you’d pick if you were solely responsible for footing the bill.
You think: there are ten of us at the table; ten bucks divided by ten people is pretty negligible, no? You’d only be paying an extra dollar for the fancy meal—you’d actually be saving nine dollars—so, it’d be stupid not to order it. You never go out for dinner, anyway. Live a little.
In game theory, where mathematics is used to model patterns in human decision-making, this scenario has a name. Called the ‘unscrupulous diner’s dilemma’, it predicts the way people’s choices often differ if they believe others will absorb the shortfall; when translated into the real world, it shows that people are most frugal when paying for themselves and most spendthrift when others share the cost. The dilemma arises because people share in this logic, adopting an “I can have my cake and eat it too” mindset but neglecting “that whatever motivates me to free-ride likely motivates my neighbours” (Henry Milner). By assigning higher priority to individual gains, everyone at the table inevitably splurges on the exxy meal, and everyone ends up paying for it.
This edition of the Brow is not about riddles or math or recipes. It’s not even about restaurants. So, what were we thinking naming our annual themed issue The Feeder’s Digest? Droll witticisms aside, we weren’t thinking about food, not really. Instead, we were interested in that whole other part of ‘feeding’. Imagining ingestion as a tripartite process, we wanted to overlook the middle bit—the actual eating bit—and focus on the stages that bookend it: the what and the how; the choice-making that (pre)determines the things we reach for and the ways that we later absorb them.
It would be easy to use the word ‘consumption’ here were it not so clinical and passive, something done to us and not the other way around.
At this table, the dilemma isn’t then simply about whether or not a costly order reflects a lack of concern for others’ well-being, or if it actually matters what an individual does within a disparate collective. It also asks whether the thinking that guides our decisions engages with the fact that the math doesn’t always add up. That there are debts we inherit, and those due. That many in this country don’t even get a seat – a loss for which we all, in unbalanced though steadily harmful ways, end up paying.
Because coming together for a meal can be a joyful experience. Feeding, digestion, whatever their implications, also suggest reciprocity, balance, nourishment—there is choice in generosity just as there is agency in the extraction and diffusion of beneficial elements.
As Ellen van Neerven writes,
We talk about what we would
and what we wouldn’t eat
to stay who we are
Perhaps this is the real diner’s dilemma: that no matter how far apart we feeders are located or how divergent our orders, we find ourselves innately connected and in conversation through the fact of our being here, together, at this moment in time.
Issue 36 of The Lifted Brow, The Feeder's Digest, is available for purchase today.