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Paving the Cow-Paths: The Demise of Idealism and the Pathway to Pragmatism

September 2, 2014

In my recent visit to London, I attended a presentation given by Dr. Dan Lockton at the Behavioral Economics drinks. The topic of the presentation was “Paving the Cow-Paths” or simply put, helping people do what they want how they naturally do it.



Dan’s presentation made me think about what does “paving the cow-paths” actually mean from a broader point of view. At micro-level things are relatively simple. If people do something in a certain way, help them do it. The pictures below (taken from Dan’s website - Source ) illustrate very well the concept.




At a macro-level, however, things aren’t all that straightforward. Whether paving the cow-paths is a good idea or not is not entirely clear and it depends on the context. Moreover, paving the cow-paths implies giving up on idealism and embracing pragmatism.


Here’s an example: assuming that my book is sold by two shops. Shop A pays me royalties of 70% of the price of sales. Shop B gives me 100% of the price in royalties. Assuming both shops sell the book for the same price, my interest is to get as many sales as possible through shop B. However, Shop A(mazon) is more popular with the potential clients. Essentially I have two options. First, I can direct all my promotion effort to get sales through shop B and let whoever wants to buy from shop A to do so. Second, I could pave the cow-path and direct my promotion effort to encouraging people to buy from shop A, thus hoping that the higher volume of sales generated would compensate the lower percentage in royalties I get from each sale.


In the example above the decision of whether to pave the cow path or not is relatively uncontroversial and could be made through a simple computation. However, there are other situations in which paving the cow path is a lot more controversial.


Let’s take traffic and speeding as examples. Imagine that there are two roads, both within city borders, both two lanes per way wide and on both roads the speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph). On both roads there are many (the wide majority of) drivers drive above the speed limit, say 80 km/h (50 mph). There is, however, a difference. One road is in the city center, while the other is somewhere at the outskirts between two abandoned industrial sights.


The last piece of information, essentially refers