I want to summarize an idea here that others have already described. It comes up a lot in my thinking about mental structures, so I want a place I can link to that briefly captures the idea. I also think it’s a wonderful example of a well-specified mental mechanism.

In the way I think of it, a Red Queen Race is a situation with these ingredients:

  1. There is an optimizer A that wants to increase some variable X.
  2. Optimizer A can trade some kind of resource R to increase X.
  3. There is an optimizer B that wants to decrease X.
  4. Optimizer B can trade some kind of resource Q to decrease X.
  5. A and B have comparable effects on X. That is, if A increases X by some amount, then it’s within B’s capabilities to decrease X by that same amount, and vice versa.
  6. A and B don’t coordinate.

Once you have this situation, then A will trade all the R that it can, and B will trade all the Q that it can, but the net effect on X will be roughly zero.

Here’s a quick handful of possible examples:

  • Cheetahs & gazelles. Cheetahs eat the slowest gazelles, and the slowest cheetahs starve. So each gazelle, and each cheetah, has incentive to run faster. Because the two groups can’t coordinate, they both end up running as fast as they can, but are in basically the same position they would have been in had they been running half as fast as they can: the same gazelles and cheetahs die. The only difference is that both groups are now expending enormous amounts of energy. (In this case R = Q.)
  • Writhing in agony. As I described recently, it looks like movement and touch can distract the nervous system from the signals that the brain interprets as pain. So if you have a process that wants to decrease the amount of pain reaching the conscious mind, that process would encourage more movement and touch (like swinging a fist or rubbing the hurt area). But pain is a warning system, and it works in part by grabbing the attention of the conscious mind. So, the pain system might “turn up the volume” in order to get the signal through. If this process runs away in a Red Queen Race, you might end up with someone thrashing around as much as they can in order to block the pain signal, and with the pain being unendurable.
  • Waking up to an alarm clock. A friend of mine tells a story of him going to war with his subconscious mind about waking up when his alarm clock goes off. After a few days of setting an alarm, he would wake up way too late and find that his alarm clock had been turned off, with no memory of having done so. He then set it across the room, which worked for about two days until he woke up late again with the alarm clock across the room having been turned off. He even tried locking it in a briefcase that requires a combination — and after a few days he found he had woken up late with the briefcase popped open on the opposite side of the room.

There are lots and lots of examples of this phenomenon. It’s also one of the most prominent examples of not having efficiency in a system that I’m aware of. (Here I’m thinking of efficiency as achieving a goal with minimal input, in analogy to a machine being efficient by doing work (in the physics sense) with minimal entropy increase.)

Sometimes this can be good: technically, an arm-wrestling match has the ingredients for a Red Queen Race, but one of the benefits you can get out of doing this is that people who try their hand at it get stronger over time, and they can use that strength elsewhere.

But most of the times I think to point out a Red Queen Race, it’s because the race is devouring resources for no good net effect.

And I think that by default it happens a lot.