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Game theory in the popular press.

'Game theory': excuse for anything

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Teddy Milne
October 22, 2002
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A student cheats on his exam.

A corporation fudges its accounts to boost its stock price.

A professor lies about his past.

A politician sends out a newsletter with one opinion to one group of constituents, another newsletter with an opposing opinion to another group.

A store chain uses underhanded methods to gain locations. Are these all independent actions, or part of a larger attitude that's eating away at ethics in this country?

To me, they seem part of the ''realist'' approach to politics, especially as exemplified by ''game theory.''

Game theory starts out by saying forget about morality, feelings and emotions; we are going to assume that a rational person is going to always act in his own best interests.

In other words, self-interest is king, a theory as old as man. Thucydides noted it in 400 B.C. Machiavelli described it in the 16th Century, and perhaps every generation has come up with theories, explanations and justifications for acting selfishly.

Game theory goes on to say that you should expect people to lie, and so you also might want to lie. Isn't this a wonderful concept to be teaching our college students?

Here's a quote from one of the textbooks used in game theory courses, ''Thinking Strategically,'' by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff: ''Individuals' incentive to cheat on any agreement should be recognized and made a part of their strategy choice.'' In a roundabout way, this teaches that cheating is not only acceptable, but to your advantage.

Further, game theory suggests that in order to get a competitive edge, you might want to pretend to be insane, so that your opponent won't be able to judge which way you're going to jump.

Well, we've seen that in politics, haven't we? Perhaps Dr. Strangelove was only pretending. However, this seems in reality a pretty insane course to take, and might easily have unintended consequences.

I had a friend at Harvard who was taking a course in game theory and was explaining it to me, back when it was in its infancy. It sounded fascinating at first, but when it came to leaving out feelings and emotions, I began to have my doubts. People, in my experience, act more often out of feelings and emotions than on that rational basis that game theory expects. Leave out feelings, and you're likely to get responses you aren't anticipating.

In physics, for every action ''there is an equal and opposite reaction.'' But in human behavior, due to our emotions, the reaction is seldom equal, it is more often excessive. Don't take into consideration that your opponent may get mad at you, and you may get something you weren't looking for.

Self-interest seems to be a very short-term way of looking at conflict. There is an old saying that one can ''win the battle but lose the war,'' and winning at the expense of someone else almost inevitably means that the problem will return, with added force. We see this in conflicts going on in numerous places around the world.

A longer term solution - which Dixit and Nalebuff touch on only briefly - is the more modern approach which has been evolving over the past couple of decades, that of working toward a ''win-win'' solution in which both sides attain enough satisfaction that the problem can be shelved.

To get a win-win solution, the two sides have to really listen to each other and seek out what is really wanted. Sometimes, perhaps often, what people demand is not really what they want or need. And the real need on each side may perhaps be something the other side is, surprisingly, willing to provide.

You can see this often in children's quarrels. They both demand to be chauffeured in the family car, and argue heatedly - until it's pointed out that they are both going to the same mall and could go together.

It's this sort of solution that our statesmen should be seeking in world conflicts, but so seldom do. Washington still works on game theory, where ultimatums and threats are what appear to work. But for how long? That's the major question.

I think it's time people became more aware of game theory and its insidious influence in our culture. It is not okay to lie, not okay to cheat, silly to ignore people's feelings, crazy to act crazy. Why have philosophers, since time began, seen that self-interest can be counter-productive? Tried to establish a code of ethics? Made laws against lying and cheating? There must be something to the notion that people need to learn to work together, not always act out of self interest alone.

Proponents of game theory call it realism. I call it delusion.

© 2002 Daily Hampshire Gazette