The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Cool Biz

In 2005, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment launched the quite admirable Cool Biz campaign to convince white-collar businessmen to shed the suit jacket and tie in the summer months so that companies can reduce the energy wasted in excess office air-conditioning. The campaign has been somewhat successful, but diffusion seems to have hit a wall. Two years in, Cool Biz has yet to become the “standard” for the business world in July and August.

The barriers to Cool Biz’s widespread adoption can be explained with the Prisoner’s Dilemma model as originally developed by Merril Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND corporation in 1950. (A simple explanation of the Prisoner’s dilemma can be found at Wikipedia.)

For our Cool Biz example of this classic game theory model, let’s say there is a face-to-face meeting between representatives from Firm A and Firm B. The workers at these companies have two options: They can wear a dark wool suit in summer to the meeting or wear a Cool Biz-approved button-up shirt with no tie and jacket. There are two factors in this decision. The comfort of the worker and the propriety of appropriate uniform to convey respect for the other company. Let us assume that each worker would be more comfortable wearing Cool Biz attire but wants to show proper respect to the other company in order to create favorable conditions for commerce. The second factor is much more important than the first, however, because the worker in Japan has traditionally prioritized being a good representative of his company over his own personal comfort.

We will use a theoretical scoring system to demonstrate the reasoning using in the endeavor — with 0 points being the status quo and positive or negative points being better or worse than the status quo, respectively. Wearing Cool Biz nets the worker 5 points compared to 0 points of the standard expectation to sweat through the muggy heat of the summer in a suit. The propriety factor is more complicated: an asymmetry of uniform causes chaos in the meeting and an asymmetry of power in negotiation. If both workers show up in the same uniform, everything is normal and there are no points scored on either side. However, the worker scores -10 for showing up in Cool Biz if the other worker is in a proper suit. The suited worker, on the hand, gets +10 points due to the improved position in utilizing the disrespect of the other party to his company’s advantage.

If both workers show up at the meeting in Cool Biz attire, both workers gain 5 points — they are comfortable (5 pts. each) and they show each other equal respect by wearing the same kind of clothing (0 points). If one worker shows up in a suit and the other shows up in Cool Biz, however, the worker in Cool Biz nets a -5 points (5 for cool biz, but -10 for disrespect) while the worker in a suit nets a score of 10 (0 for suit but 10 points for the advantageous power imbalance). If both show up in normal suits, the net score is 0 for both.

In table form (the first digit is the score for the worker from Firm A, while the second is the score for the worker from Firm B):

Firm A
Cool Biz Suit
Firm B
Cool Biz 5,5 10,-5
Suit -5,10 0,0

The solution to this problem is that they will always wear suits, because they would both rather wear be uncomfortable in suits than risk the penalty of showing up in Cool Biz at a meeting with a suited employee from another company.

Face-to-face interaction is still very important in Japanese business culture, and Cool Biz is not seen as a clothing style that demonstrates proper respect for meetings. Currently, Cool Biz does much better in the non-sales departments because of the absence of this inter-firm interaction dilemma. But since most Japanese companies still direct the majority of manpower into sales (営業), Cool Biz will never make inroads until it is condoned for outcall sales teams as well as for office workers.

How could Cool Biz be better promoted now knowing how the dilemma works? If companies had a better idea of which partner firms adopted Cool Biz, there would be less confusion in the decision to wear a suit or Cool Biz to a meeting. There could then be silent coordination to go towards the solution of both workers wearing Cool Biz: a net gain. Greater promotion of the style could also reduce the misunderstanding that wearing Cool Biz to a meeting is a form of disrespect. With the current psychological conditions, however, most workers will decide to go for suits even if they know they should be doing Cool Biz for the good of the environment and their own temperature control.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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6 Responses to “The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Cool Biz”

  1. Why Isn’t Cool Biz Widespread? Game Theory. » Japan Probe Says:

    […] many Japanese government offices, but it has yet to become widespread in the private sector. Why? Japan blogger W. David Marx has argued that the situation can be explained using the classic game theory example of the Prisoner’s […]

  2. Alec Says:

    That really is it, albeit written in a more technical way. Somehow the business culture has to change and this will take a long time. Perhaps there should be TV ads with some top Japanese businessman saying “Suits are for koots, CoolBiz is the shiz!” … yeah, I don’t know what ‘koots’ are either …

  3. equinoXio » » ¿Clientelismo disfrazado de ecologismo? Says:

    […] antecesor de Abe, Jun’ichirō Koizumi, lanzó una audaz campaña titulada Cool Biz, que busca ayudar a nuestro planeta invitando a los oficinistas a utilizar vestimenta más […]

  4. Adamu Says:

    So far as I can tell, while the dress code for cool biz might not have caught on exactly, businesses have definitely gotten the message about leaving the air conditioner up. At my company at least it gets downright stifling around 3pm.

    Also at my company the back office people are all business casual, and the higher up people who go outside the company a lot dress in BC when they are in the back office and put on suits when there are meetings. Presumably those meetings are steamy affairs.

  5. clast » 「クール」でいることは「暑」いっ! Says:

    […] ビジネスの世界で働く日本男性は、夏の耐えがたい湿気と暑さの中であっても、不本意ながらも発汗性の高い黒いウールのスーツを着なければならない、ということを以前クールビズに関する記事で述べた。だが、先日気温34℃のなか表参道を歩いていて、私は長い間気になっていたあることを思い出した。それは、日本の若者の多くは気温に関係なく、東京で買い物をする際の服装を決めているということである。濃い色のジーンズ、ブーツ、長袖のTシャツ、ベストを上に着る、そよ風の吹く秋の日に合いそうなスカーフ的なものを巻くなど、たとえ夏真っ盛りの中であってもこういった重ね着スタイルは、原宿のプチ・ファッショニスタたちにとってはガマン大会的なチャレンジでもなんでもないのである。(女性はコットンのワンピースを着て日傘を差せば、簡単に涼しげかつスタイリッシュでいられるのに) […]

  6. donkeymon Says:

    Well, CoolBiz has been adopted, but it’s like so many other things in Japan; “optional” without really being optional. No one is really free to do only that which is required of them. For example, even if the work day officially ends at 6:00, no one leaves before their boss to avoid making a bad impression. Going the extra mile and enduring all sorts of hardships that technically you don’t have to for the sake of the company is just accepted as common sense in Japan. So of course, the boss is going to turn down the AC and say that you can go CoolBiz, if you want to, but no one is going to, because they want to prove to the boss how much they can endure for the company.