Schelling Points

A page about the concept of a Schelling point and some of the weird places it shows up.

The concept

According to Wikipedia, a Schelling point (or a focal point) is "a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special, or relevant to them."

Two examples:

  1. "Two people unable to communicate with each other are each shown a panel of four squares and asked to select one; if and only if they both select the same one, they will each receive a prize. Three of the squares are blue and one is red. Assuming they each know nothing about the other player, but that they each do want to win the prize, then they will, reasonably, both choose the red square. Of course, the red square is not in a sense a better square; they could win by both choosing any square. And it is only the 'right' square to select if a player can be sure that the other player has selected it; but by hypothesis neither can. However, it is the most salient and notable square, so — lacking any other one — most people will choose it, and this will in fact (often) work." (from Wikipedia)
  2. Thomas Schelling poses this game: Suppose you have to meet a stranger tomorrow in NYC. You haven't arranged a specific place or time to meet, but the meeting is urgent, and you know the stranger will be looking for you as well. Where do you go? Of course you wander around the city, but you'll stand a better chance of "winning" the game if you meet at noon at the information booth in Grand Central Terminal, or perhaps at the top of the Empire State Building. These times and locations are considered "Schelling points."

Now the official definition of a Schelling point is a solution that people will tend to converge on in the absence of communication. But as we all know, real-world coordination problems can be difficult no matter how much communication is allowed. So we will often find ourselves gravitating to Schelling points even when we could talk our way to a different solution, especially in large multi-polar political processes.


Leaders, dead ancestors, gods. Salience here is key. A ruler makes himself stronger by making himself more salient. Fun little quote: "Then he proceeded to execute all those little Schelling Points that were the emperor's brothers and sisters."

Oracles (e.g. at Delphi). Any given pronouncement of the Oracle may have been arbitrary, but at least it was salient and commonly agreed-upon as a basis for action.

Morality: humans, vitalism, sentience, old books

Constitutional interpretation: Originalism, current meaning

The Bible

Tradition as a Schelling point

The past as a Schelling point

Last updated August 9, 2016.