Discover more from Evolving Together
How algorithms and mathematical models can predict future events
Note: I do not claim any expertise in the field. A neophyte wrote this essay. Having said that, I have been reading about game theory to develop a basic understanding of how it can be practically applied to my own life in such a way as to result in positive improvements. You, too, can benefit from a high-level understanding of its applications.
Game theory, at its most basic level, is the study of math models and strategic interactions between rational agents. In plain English, game theory is the study of behavioral relations.1 Game theory has many practical uses because it can help predict human behavior. It has been around for a while (since the 1930s) and has been undergoing continuous expansion and refinement. The field is continuing to grow.
The best use of game theory is to figure out the optimal solution from the best possible choices through the analysis of costs and benefits to each participant who competes with each other. The theory is applicable in different fields, like in business, psychology, biology, economics, political science, computers, etc. The practical implication of the theory lies in its use to support in explaining events and situations that occurred in the past and to determine different actions players may take in the future, etc.2
Game theory can be used to predict such events as the January 6th insurrection (two years ago today). In game theory, Donald J Trump is the equivalent of a four-line computer program3. A four-line computer program should be easy to defeat. Why, then, is Donald Trump so persistently able to avoid the consequences of his terrible, awful, abysmal behavior?
Game theory has an answer to that question.
Game theorists have studied the counter-punching strategy Trump is now known for. In 1980, political scientist Robert Axelrod invited colleagues to design computer programs that would compete against each other in a contest of cooperation and betrayal known as the prisoner’s dilemma. In the game, two criminals are offered immunity to turn the other in. If only one snitches, he goes free, and the other receives a five-year sentence. If both inform on each other, they get four years. If neither talks, they get two years. The game is played repeatedly, so each player faces the same choice over and over, whether to be a nice guy who protects his accomplice or a nasty one who betrays him.
One of the tournament contestants was a four-line computer program called Tit for Tat. Its strategy was simple: Whenever the other player snitched, Tit for Tat retaliated by informing on that player in the next round. Whenever the other player kept silent, Tit for Tat returned the favor by staying mum the next round. By maximizing cooperation with “nice” players and punishing “nasty” ones, Tit for Tat outmaneuvered its opponents and won the tournament.4
In my town, the conservatives love to flaunt t-shirts with different variants of the sentiment: “Fuck your feelings.” Game theory aligns with this idea. While human behavior is largely based on feelings and emotions, outcomes in human battles and contests (games) rarely hinge on feelings and emotions. Rather, these outcomes are tied to mathematical decision trees called algorithms.
That’s what game theory analyzes - the decision trees. In so doing, it can predict events like the January 6th insurrection. It can also explain why a malignant narcissist like Trump can spend a lifetime avoiding consequences for inexcusable and criminal behaviors. If the federal government had not been so crippled by the incompetent and corrupt Trump administration, it might have shut down that particular insurrection before it happened. All of the behavioral indicators were present. No one with enough political capital was paying attention or doing anything to prevent the final outcome. Maybe we need a new federal agency: DOGT - the Department of Game Theory. An agency insulated from the political process to avoid another insurrection attempt and shut it down before it starts.
I’ll be expounding on game theory throughout 2023. Stay tuned if that interests you.