Friday, April 8, 2016

G is for . . .

Image source: Mark Dumont

Game Theory. (You thought it was something gross, right? I'll get to the bats in a minute.)

I couldn't go the whole month without some mathematics. What is game theory? According to Wikipedia, it is the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.* I found it ironic that political science was one of the areas that uses game theory because the intersection of rational decision-makers and politicians seems empty much of the time. Ba-dump-bum.

Image source: Dennis Jarvis

The classic example of game theory is the prisoner's dilemma. Suppose two people, Andy and Bud, are arrested for a crime and separated for questioning. Without communicating with each other, each detainee must decide whether to accuse the other person of the crime (conflict) or stay silent (cooperation). 

Here are the outcomes: 

1. Andy and Bud both accuse each other. Result: Both are sentenced to 2 years.

2. Andy accuses Bud and Bud stays silent. Result: Andy goes free. Bud gets 3 years.

3. Bud accuses Andy and Andy stays silent. Result: Bud goes free. And gets 3 years.

4. Andy and Bud both stay silent. Result: Both are sentenced to 1 year.

Now for the question. What should a person do to minimize their jail time?

Suppose you accuse. The other guy might also accuse, leaving you with 2 years, or they might stay silent, leaving you with 0. 

Suppose you stay silent. The other guy might accuse, leaving you in the slammer with 3 long years, or they might stay silent, leaving you with 1 year. 

For an individual, accusing is the way to go. But hold on a minute! All things being equal, your possible partner in crime is just as rational as you. So guess what? They are going to act in their best interest and accuse as well. So it's 2 years for you both! HA!

That's where the dilemma comes in. For the good of the community (even a community of two), it would be better to act against you own best self-interest and stay silent. If you both do that, you split your jail time in half to 1 year.

Image source: Johnlsl

Math is tricksy, but the idea of acting for the good of a community even at the cost to an individual does pop up in nature. Think of worker bees that care for the queen without ever mating. There are also some vampire bats that will regurgitate their blood to members of their group that didn't get their supper (uh, thanks?), and Vervet Monkeys that will warn the group of a predator, even if such a warning lessens their own chance at escape. (They could just high-tail it out of there). (Wikipedia)

Do you find yourself acting for the better of your family, your community, or even the world even if it's not the best for you? How so? 

*Actually, the source for this quote is: Myerson, Roger B. (1991). Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict, Harvard University Press, p. 1. Chapter-preview links, pp. vii–xi.


  1. Or better yet, don't commit the crime in the first place...

  2. If I were in that situation, I would probably just tell the truth. I would be so nervous that I’m sure I wouldn’t be thinking game theory.

  3. Ha, I think I would be too nervous to be thinking about game theory, too! Hopefully I would never be in that situation in the first place.

  4. John Nash, the mathematician who came up with game therapy, eventually won the Nobel Prize in Economics. He was a professor at Princeton. The book, A Beautiful Mind, is about him. Ron Howard made it into a not very accurate movie. Nash and his wife died within the last year or so when they were riding in a taxi. An accident occurred. Another big thing in math is string theory, and then there's my daughter's specialty, algebraic geometry. It's nice to see someone discuss an aspect of mathematics. I think I always acted for the good of my family, but it left me with some deep resentment because I gave up so much that I wanted to do. Perhaps it's because my ex-husband did not do his share of acting for the betterment of the family.


  5. I've always done what's best for others, it's cost me much, and yet I can't stop myself. They say reward comes in the next life, I'm counting on it! LOL

  6. Interesting! There are times when I choose to spend time with others or volunteer my time even when I would prefer to just stay home that day.

  7. Yes I sometimes put the group above my own interests and sometimes I don't, I find life it a balance. Caring about others is important, it enriches life, but there are moments when a person has to think of themselves too. It's knowing when that is key :)
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  8. Yes, all the time. I take on too much and burn myself out because I can't resist the opportunity to help someone out.

    Interesting post, Tamara!

  9. I so didn't need to know that about the bats, but it is kind of sweet.



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