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Chinese takeaway, French film and another vote

by Tim Gowers | 15.09.2016

A group of work colleagues has agreed to spend an evening together. With some difficulty, they have found an evening that they can all manage, so the discussion turns to how they will spend it. Eventually the choice is narrowed down to two options: to see a film that has had rave reviews and that is coming to the end of its run, or to go to a Chinese restaurant.

The discussion becomes heated. A few of the colleagues are quite strongly opposed to seeing the film (which is French, with subtitles), a few are very keen to see it, and the rest are not quite sure. One person says, “I don’t really like Chinese food,” to which another replies that he knows an amazingly good Chinese restaurant that is very popular with people who don’t normally like Chinese restaurants. A third person comments that a restaurant like that is rather unlikely to have a table for twelve at fairly short notice, but this objection is dismissed: “You’re always putting the dampers on things by worrying too much,” say those in favour of the restaurant, “Of course there will be a table.”

In the end it comes down to a vote. Six vote for the Chinese restaurant, five for the film, and one abstains. So after work they follow the colleague who recommended the good Chinese restaurant.

When they get there, they find that there isn’t a table. “I thought you were taking care of the booking,” says one of the people who wanted to go to the film. “I never actually promised,” is the reply, “and I didn’t say that there would definitely be a table. In fact, I thought it was rather unlikely. But don’t worry, there’s a Chinese takeaway across the road there.”

The takeaway looks dismal, so at first this suggestion is treated as a joke. But it becomes clear that it was meant seriously, so an argument ensues. It is not too late to see the film, and it appears that most of the twelve would now like to do so. During the argument, some say, “Look, we’ve had a vote, and we voted to go to a Chinese restaurant. We can’t just keep having votes until you get your way.” Others say, “We weren’t voting for any old Chinese restaurant, we were voting for this really good one that you told us would have a table.” The four remind them that the precise words used when they voted were “Who wants to see the film?” and “Who would rather go to a Chinese restaurant?”

Assuming that the colleagues are determined to spend the evening together rather than splitting into two groups, what is the most democratic course of action at this point?

Tim Gowers is British mathematician, a professor at the University of Cambridge and winner of a Fields Medal in 1998

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “Chinese takeaway, French film and another vote”

  • A very good example of democratic decision making.
    Repeated voting is of course perfectly legitamate:
    1) if the first result wss the correct one, then all subsequent re- votes will have the same outcome! No problem.
    2) if some parameters get or are changed then a repeat vote is naturally essential. And so should be done.

    Whether its restaurant v film.
    Or Brexit yes v no!

  • Quite obviously the non availability of one of the options renders the earlier vote nul and void. The only solution is to vote again to choose between the two real options.

  • To make the analogy relevant to the EU referendum, you need to assume they are already at the French film when they take the vote. It is a known quantity. The 6 who vote against it don’t like it much (and they may have different reasons for doing so).

    For the 2nd vote, the choices must be to either persist with the Chinese restaurant plan, or go back to the same film and continue watching it. The film isn’t getting any better.

    And just as there are countries outside the EU who do well, you have to assume that there are decent Chinese restaurants available – just keep looking.