Thursday, October 7, 2010

Game Theory in Dating

John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning economist who expanded the literature of game theory, adding the notion of equilibrium to the original work of John von Neumann. In the Hollywood movie, John Nash played by Russell Crowe formalized his theories based on a social problem – dating his female college mates. If the movie is to be believed, he needed a strategy to date girls. So his game theory was fed by his social awkwardness as he needed a way to successfully date girls. I believe his ideas were successful in getting more dates. So game theory has every day social applications, not only in high level endeavors like planning for nuclear strikes or in high level negotiations. In You Tube, there is even a video in using game theory to get a raise.

It’s a good framework to analyze every day situations. It removes the emotional content inherent in interpersonal relationships. One transcends the normal ego-related reaction and instead goes above to a higher objective level. It’s the level of a ‘game’ similar to sports like chess, basketball and so on. Without the ego, thinking is calm and controlled - with an emphasis on strategy instead of getting ahead over one’s ‘enemy’. It’s not really a strategy of getting an upper hand but deciding on a course of action following your opponent’s choice. A good example was the tobacco companies’ decision to follow the government’s request to stop tobacco advertising. It is the famous prisoner’s dilemma where staying silent is not the best option (even if it’s the best return) and, instead, confesses to the police and gets a lesser prison sentence.

The decision is made based on the reaction of the other party. From this perspective, it is making a decision based on getting the better deal for all. So the basis of the decision is not constructed in isolation but in how the others react. The benefit may not be as great as you would have wanted but based on the best outcome considering the reaction of the other party. Applied to dating, I believe the movie suggests asking the 2nd or 3rd best looking girl (or guy) rather than the best looking one. The best looking girl (or guy) will likely get a lot of offers from other suitors and the chances of John Nash succeeding is remote. At the other end of the scale, choosing the least attractive girl (or guy) may provide the best result but not the best return to the suitor.

It’s a wise course of action but for some folks who have an intuitive sense of game theory, perhaps like the Chinese who have centuries of experience, it would seem like common sense.  Game theory is a way to create a dynamic technique to reach a wise decision. It’s been around for some time but not well understood in its day to day application. Today, one has a sense to raise one’s thinking and decision making skills into a higher level. New technology is changing the landscape of everyday life. It’s a new world that one has to adapt to. It’s an incentive to change one’s mode of thought when faced with a changing world. It reminds one of the changing landscapes like in the movie ‘Inception’ – with buildings crumbling or folding upwards to the sky, shorelines collapsing or gravity suddenly suspended that one walks on ceiling or walls – but still working towards a goal and changing tactics as the situation changes.

It’s a way of acting or making decisions in a fluid situation. Perhaps it is like playing multi-level chess. Game theory give one a foundation for thinking – like kindergarten – and one should scale up to more difficult problems as one lives his life. One always wondered about the decisions of people like Henry Kissinger or Mao or Deng – who seem to follow the beat of a different drum when making decisions. Reading their works or biographies one detects a high level of strategic thought that is beyond the layman. Perhaps game theory is a way to match wits with grand thinkers or strategists. It’s no longer a matter of following one’s values or beliefs or gut reaction in making strategic choices but following a mechanism that incorporates the situational reality. Hence, one is playing a game with other players.

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