Aligned incentive structures of potlucks

by Feast of Assumption

wrote recently about potlucks, and the more attention I paid them, the more impressed I found myself becoming at such a tight and tidy social technology. Their direct benefits are plenty and obvious, but their role in the social framework of a geographic community or a community of like minds takes advantage of aligned incentives to produce both good potlucks and more tightly bonded communities.

A potluck is any social event where attendees bring food for themselves and each other. The potluck can be the main event, or play a supporting role. Attendees can be tightly bonded (a parish or a family), loosely bonded (a book club or dance group), or variably bonded (coworkers). After each potluck, I assert that these bonds are incrementally ratcheted closer, in ways distinct from and better than gatherings with no food or with catered food.

What it says on the tin

The obvious improvements potlucks bring:

  • increased event attendance vs an event with no food
  • reduced cost to host or reduced admission cost vs an event with catered food
  • attendees can experience variety with low time & travel burden vs catering
  • a food table at a social event increases serendipitous mixing opportunities, and offers a shared experience for idle conversation vs no food

Why it’s better than that

  • people who are motivated by excellence have an opportunity to serve a delicious dish, and so bring their best
  • people who are motivated by social status have an opportunity to be recognized at this event and invited to future events based on the quality of their dish, and so bring their best
  • people who are motivated by kindness have an opportunity to make people happy, and so bring their best
  • people who are on a tight budget can bring bread or pilaf, and so are not excluded
  • people who are meek about their cooking skills or short on time can bring chips and salsa, or grocery store veggie trays, and so are not excluded
  • people who are motivated by organizing events and not by cooking can outsource thinking about food
  • people who are motivated by tasty food have an opportunity to eat tasty food, and won’t miss the event

Synergistic mini-games

  • The excellence-motivated enjoy innovating, honing their skills, and being inspired by their peers. The potluck is at the same time a sandbox and a showcase for them—they can debut a dish they’ve been perfecting while observing new ideas and techniques.
  • The social status-motivated enjoy competition and recognition. In the context of the larger potluck, these players recognize each other, and are able to vie for signaled accolades. (“Her dish was the first one killed.” The picky guy took seconds of mine.” The host asked him to bring that dish again next month.” I need to get some of that before it runs out!”)
  • The affable might unwittingly serve as materiel in the status games above, but they don’t need to know those are going on. Congenial guests are free to compliment and encourage their peers without becoming mired in competition.
  • As long as a bringing chips & salsa is a valued contribution” attitude prevails, people who are short on cash, time, or skills still feel welcome to the event. They miss out on intrinsically motivating mini-games, but they still show up.
  • Event organizers who are able to outsource food face lower activation energy for starting new events, and reduced burnout for ongoing events.
  • Foodies (and aren’t we all food-motivated, in addition to whatever else drives us?) all get to reap the rewards of the mini-games above.

The last bite

Potlucks propagate both potlucks and the communities that wield them—they are elegant tech.