Applying Game Theory to Life

Today I want to talk about game theory.

Let’s start with the definition: game theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. Game theory has been applied to contexts in war, business, and biology.

Now I’m not a huge math guy, but the game theory we can apply to our lives (and much of it in general) usually doesn’t require complex formulas, or really, any numbers. It’s simply about applying logic to certain situations and understanding how people are likely to behave given multiple/on-going events.

Here are the three basic factors to take into account:

  • HUMAN BEHAVIOR/DECISION MAKING: this is actually much more predictable than we think. When using game theory, we simply have to examine how people are likely to behave given particular scenarios. Think needs and wants: food, shelter, sex, status, etc. An example might be that if I’m a helpful/kind person to my colleagues at work, they’re more likely to help me than if I behave like a grumpy curmudgeon.
  • TIME/MULTIPLE EVENTS: instead of thinking about the result of a single event or of the current situation as static, game theory means we think about what happens over time or after multiple events. Chip Kelly revolutionized college football by realizing that if his offense snapped the ball as quickly as possible, not only would the defense have less time to prepare, they’d also get extremely tired as the game wore on.
  • HOW BEHAVIOR CHANGES OVER TIME: think Pavlov here–we ring the bell, the dog sees he’s going to get food, causing him to salivate. If we repeat this process, we get to a point where simply ringing the bell causes the dog to salivate.

The gun debate is a perfect example of game theory.

On one side we have the vast majority of Americans who would like to see some range of measures taken to reduce gun violence, and on the other side we have people opposed to all such measures. But there’s a problem for those in the latter camp when we apply game theory:

  1. Republicans currently control the federal government and the majority of state governments, which means nothing meaningful will take place on this issue anytime soon.
  2. At the same time, we know that as long as nothing is done, mass shootings will continue to happen.
  3. Further, we see that every time there’s a mass shooting, there’s a multiplier effect on the anger and activism of the majority who want gun control laws–one only need witness the #MarchForOurLives that took place recently to see this dynamic playing out.
  4. In addition, because the gun rights side is so intransigent and unwilling to compromise–and most of their arguments so spurious–each time there’s another shooting (which again, we know for certain will happen) the range of possible gun restrictions grows more extreme. Remember, this debate started with people asking for universal background checks–in addition to that, we’re now talking about an assault weapons ban, a limit on clip capacity, 30 day waiting periods, a possible gun buy-back, etc.
  5. Come November 2018, either: A) Republicans will lose control of the House and maybe even the Senate, or B) they’ll have to call off the elections or engage in such a tremendous election fraud (voter suppression and/or outright cheating), we’ll be involved in a coup d’etat/revolution situation.

Assuming we don’t see option B coming into play, Republicans are essentially guaranteeing that they’re going to lose control of government at some point, in which case, Democrats will be free to enact a set of gun control measures that will be much more extreme than what Republicans could have ensured by compromising at any earlier point.

In other words, if they were applying game theory, Republicans would act on the gun control issue ASAP, because if they don’t, they’ll lose on both the gun issue and in upcoming elections.

What’s interesting is that so few people apply game theory to their lives and decisions. As someone who’s off and on in the world of online dating, I’m always surprised by how many catfish there are out there–people who use photos to make themselves look much different than what they look like in real life. The game theory is quite clear on that:

  1. You’ll get more matches and interest, but then…
  2. It’s time to meet up, in which case…
  3. You look worse than what the other person thought, and their first impression is that you’re dishonest.

So if the goal of dating is to open the possibility of having a relationship, it’s much better to present an accurate picture of yourself than trying to fool people.

We can also apply game theory to our own lives. For example, if I write one page of fiction every day, I’ll have enough material for a novel or two by the end of the year. If I save $5 a day, I’ll save nearly $2000/year. When we apply game theory, we can see how small actions can multiply out to have tremendous effects over time.

Anyway, the next time you’re making a big decision or trying to make a change in your life, try applying game theory to ensure the best outcome–and if you need help, drop me a line!

Thanks for reading! Cheers!

About The Author: Jay Scott

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