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Trump as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother

Monday, September 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on finger-based decision theory ]

Surely this is the answer to Decision Theory and Human Behavior — don’t we all do it this way?

When win-win games get gamed

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a paradox I’m currently chewing on, courtesy of Richard Landes]

I want to take something that Richard Landes has been saying, abstract it from those conflicts to which Richard applies it, simplify it by removing one technical term that’s part of his detailed breakdown, and present it in as bare-bones a manner as I can manasge. You can see two of Richard’s own versions of the issue below.


The basic question, as I understand it, is this:

How does a non-zero-sum move look to a zero-sum player, and vice versa?

Let’s suppose your entire background and upbringing revolves around the idea of zero-sum, you-win-I-lose games. If you see any sign of your adversary gaining an advantage in a negotiation, that’s proof positive that you’ve been bamboozled: somehow, you must have lost. Your job is to make no concessions — to be the winner in a winner-takes-all contest.

Now suppose your background and upbringing have revolved around the idea of non-zero-sum, win-win games, in which both sides of a negotiation make some concessions so that both can emerge as winners. You offer concessions in good faith, and in return you expect similar concessions.

What happens when a zero-sum game player and a non-zero-sum game player meet in play?

It’s Landes’ suggestion that any generosity on the part of a win-win player offering his winner-take-all opponent a concession will be taken as evidence of weakness,. and the opponent, far from making a corresponding compromise, will press on and demand more — making further nmoves which will offer so little that the win-win player will be at a loss to explain why such a promising start to bnegotiations fell apart so badly.

A further supposition: so-called honor-shame societies are geared for zero-sum, winner-takes-all gameplay, while societies which rely on an innocence-guilt reading of human behavior will be no less inclined toeards playing non-zero-sum, win-win games.

That’s the idea expressed in game-theoretic terms, as simply as I can put it. To my mind, these game considerations are worth thinking through in their own right, absent the specifics to which Richard Landes brings them.


Here is Landes making the same point, in the context of Israeli relations with the Palestinians, the Arab and Muslim worlds, and European liberalism –all of the above broadly speaking:

And a text version, Cognitive Egocentrism, for those who find words fly home faster in print…


Help me think this through.

Takfir squared, Prisoners Dilemma and MC Escher

Friday, January 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — call it backlash, backfire, or blowback, somewhere they’re dclaring takfir on the takfiris ]

Ali Minai at BrownPundits has a worthwhile take on what he calls, paradoxically enough, Unreal Islam, from which I’ve excerpted this paragraph:

However, another version of takfir is now afoot in the world. Call it “reverse takfir”. Unlike the militant version, it is well-intentioned and self-consciously humane, but it is also dangerous. This “benign” version of takfir is epitomized by the idea that the acts of violence being committed by self-proclaimed holier-than-thou Muslims are not the acts of “real Muslims” and do not represent “real Islam”. In effect, it declares the terrorists to be infidels! The idea is widespread, and is espoused in three different contexts: By well-meaning non-Muslims (such as Presidents Bush and Obama) seeking to avoid stereotyping and the implication of collective guilt; by ordinary Muslims wishing to dissociate themselves from the beheaders; by Muslim sectarians wishing to separate their brand of orthodoxy from that espoused by terrorists; and – most ironically – by Muslim governments and security forces seeking an “Islamic” justification for attacking extremist fellow Muslims, thus implicitly buying into the central jihadi argument of apostasy as a capital offense. The urge to do this reverse takfir is understandable and not without factual basis: Most Muslims are indeed not violent extremists who wish to kill infidels. And it does help protect innocent Muslims from backlash, which is rather important. The problem, however, is that it also feeds the narrative of denial and deniability that allows the militancy to thrive.


Call it reversal, call it backlash, backfire, blowback, call it enantriodromia, eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat — the return of violence for violence seems both instinctual, in the sense that a desire for vengeance seems to spring unprompted in the individual, and culturally embedded, in that it can be found in Torah and Pashtunwali alike, and elsewhere, and elsewhere.

Whether the individual instinct can usefully be separated from cultural instinct is at least a question, perhaps a koan — but it was Axelrod‘s insight, working on the Prisoners Dilemma in game theory, that the “strategy” of tit-for-tat may best be considered as an iterative process, .. for-tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat-for .. rather than as an isolated instance, tit-for-tat-period.

Gandhi made the same leap to iterative thinking when he said:

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

— or did he?


Iteration requires that we pull back, to see not just “my / our” response — which is probably self-evident, if not so all-consuming as to be omnipresent and invisible — but to see “both sides”.

We move from:

Escher one hand drawing

— which is the natural or “default” view, equivalent to the righteous indignation of one’s own side in a conflict, to:

Escher drawing_hands

— which definitely seems paradoxical on the face of it, and which notably doesn’t give preference to one side or one hand over the other — Doug Hofstadter‘s celebrated diagram illustrates the process thus:

Hofstadter Escher hands


Lincoln uses this strategy in his Second Inaugural, in describing the Civil War:

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

It is to a large extent the elevation of Lincoln’s comments above partisanship into inclusivity, surely, which gives that great speech its greatness.


For your further consideration:

Robert Axelrod:

  • The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984
  • The Complexity of Cooperation, 1997
  • The Evolution of Cooperation, revised 2006
  • Doris Schattschneider:

  • M.C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry
  • An interesting pattern I’ll call Piggy in the Middle

    Thursday, December 12th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — on the travails of negotiators & peacemakers ]

    I’m thinking of the simple, three-player version of the children’s game called Piggy in the Middle. Two plays face each other and toss a ball back and forth, while a third player standing between them attempts to intercept the ball in passing. In the case below (upper panel), Phillip Smyth is “piggy in the middle”.

    I’m suggesting there’s a pattern here that’s worth watching for. Bill Keller, opining in the NYT under the title Iran’s Hardliners, and Ours (lower panel, above), thinks that if you’re piggy in the middle, “you’ve probably done something right.”

    That’s a thought that might have comforted my childhood, though I don’t think it’s true in an “always applicable” sense. I do think it suggests that both sides in a fierce argument may often have something to be said for them, and that a skillful negotiator will be one who can “hear the truth” in both sides and winnow them out of the turmoil as the basis for a rapprochement

    And BTW, it’s clearly a lot more work being “piggy in the middle” that either of the two other players — for one thing, you’re constantly forced to spin around to catch a ball you just missed, as it whistles by in the opposite direction to the one it was going in when you just missed it. Blessed are the peacemakers.


    Wikipedia’s entry on Piggy in the Middle is titled Keep Away. As of this writing, it contains what is undoubtedly my current favorite comment on any game in the entire literature of play up to this point in time:

    The game has a worldwide use of playing; mostly in many countries.

    That’s good to know, and or maybe not.

    Most intriguing game-theoretic comment of the year thus far

    Friday, September 20th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — at the intersection of zero-sum and non-zero sum games ]

    And the hands-down winner is — opening today’s Washington Post to the op-ed page — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who says:

    The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

    I think he’s right, though I’ll leave the question of whether he means it TBD — but if he does, that’s a.. that’s a.. that’s a Major Game Changer — and verra interesting in any case:

  • What’s the non-zero-sum strategy when there may be one or more zero-sum players in the game?
  • **

    For your further edification, here’s what a genuine game-changer, in both literal and metaphoric sense of the phrase, looks like:


    The court is a tennis court, the game in play is revolutionary politics, the event is the Tennis Court Oath, where the members of the National Assembly gathered to swear “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” — the drawing is by Jacques-Louis David.

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