“From now on I’m thinking only of me.”
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to think any other way, wouldn’t I?”
   —Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I think this is a very apt expression for a situation we all have probably encountered, in which people are forced to act a certain way because everyone else acts that way, and meanwhile the others are acting that way for the very same reason. It is a variant of the prisoner's dilemma, but to me it seems more general than that. The tragedy of the prisoner's dilemma is that by both trying to win, the prisoners both end up losing. In Yossarian's situation, he isn't necessarily trying to win, he is just trying not to lose. It is essentially the reverse of what your mother was always saying: "If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"

A few examples:

  • Schoolboys all lie about having lost their virginity, because the other boys' lies make them believe they're the only one who hasn't lost it yet.
  • Two people who are attracted to each other try to hide their feelings, because they each see no reason to believe that the other is attracted to them.1
  • Businessmen all wear suits because they would look under-dressed next to all the people wearing suits.
  • A crowd starts stampeding away from some danger that nobody can see, but which must be there because everyone is stampeding.
  • People save their money because the economy is bad, and the economy is bad because nobody is spending money.

I first saw the phrase several weeks ago, when doing research for an essay on the working hours of junior doctors. I was trying to make a comparison between the situations of junior doctors and junior lawyers, both of whom tend to work long hours without regard for the immediate rewards, but rather for the sake of their future careers. I found a paper discussing the 'billable hour', a term that probably makes young lawyers shudder in their shirts and senior lawyers lick their lips. The paper discussed the results of a survey, which found that many lawyers believed their billing practices were unethical, but continued with them anyway, because everyone else was billing that way too:

Few lawyers will have clear information about other lawyers’ billing practices; their beliefs are much more likely to be based on rumour and innuendo. All these factors will contribute to lawyers’ beliefs about what behaviour is necessary, possible and acceptable. Lawyers engaging in unethical practices may therefore be a manifestation of “Yossarian’s response”: that—given the lawyer’s understanding of the firm and her colleagues—she would be “a damned fool” to do things any other way. Importantly, the lawyer’s perception need not have any basis in reality in order for it to push the lawyer to engage in unethical conduct.2
I think this is where the difference lies between Yossarian's response and the prisoner's dilemma: the beliefs about what other people are doing might not even be correct. Both prisoners know that the other will give evidence against them3 (and even if they don't, all the better!), but the overworked doctors might only believe that the others are working harder than themselves, in which case they had better work damn hard.

I haven't been able to find references to this phrase outside the paper I mentioned above. I think this is a shame, because even if it is not sufficiently different from the prisoner's dilemma for it to have a distinct meaning, it is definitely simpler to explain, as Joseph Heller did so concisely. So I would like to see the phrase popularised. This won't happen just because I use it, but then if everyone thought that way, it never would be, would it.

  1. This is the plot outline of the novel I will continue putting off writing for several years, if not forever.
  2. Parker & Ruschena 2011, 'The Pressures of Billable Hours: Lessons from a Survey of Billing Practices Inside Law Firms', University of St Thomas Law Journal, http://www.lsc.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/106058/pressures-of-billable-hours.pdf.
  3. This is because two basic assumptions of game theory are that players are fully rational and self-interested, so their behaviour is predictable (or in some situations, at least the probabilities that they assign to each action they might take are predictable).