Adventures in Game Theory, Part Two

In the previous installment of this adventure, I promised to reveal how the secrets to business effectiveness and social harmony could be achieved by playing games like Rock Paper Scissors. Will I be able to deliver on that outrageous promise? Only by reading on will you get to find out.

For the next part of our journey, let’s consider a new game which we’ll call Scissors Party. The rules are simple and very much like those of Rock Paper Scissors. Players bounce their fists as usual and then pick any one of the three gestures normally used in the game. However, the scoring system in this version is different. In Scissors Party, players get two points each if they successfully match their opponent’s choice and no points if they don’t match. So if two players both choose paper, they get two points each. If one player chooses scissors and the other chooses paper, nobody gets any points. As in Dilemma Party, players are free to stay with the same partner or mingle in the group as they like. Any guesses as to what happens?

You may have already guessed that players tend to form pairs and small clusters that make the same choice every time, eg: always rock or always paper. Even though lots of people will still mingle, they figure out fairly quickly that they’re not making as many points as the people who stay put. Just as in Dilemma Party, interpersonal dynamics add complexity to the game. Some people want to move around and take risks, while others just want to ace the game, so the results are never as perfectly consistent as we might imagine. However, the patterns are still pretty clear.

So far so good. But where it gets really interesting is when you put Dilemma Party and Scissors Party together. This gives you Scissors Dilemma Party: a game that gives players four options: rock, paper, scissors and nose-thumbing.  The scoring works as you’d expect:

  • Thumbing gets you three points against rock, paper, or scissors but only one point against another thumb.
  • Successfully matching rock, paper, or scissors with your partner gets you two points.
  • Failing to match with rock, paper or scissors, or coming up against a thumb, gets you zero points.

Everyone confused yet?

What’s bizarre is what happens when you play this game with a room full of people who have just played Scissors Party moments before. Even though they know full well that they can form cliques and collaborate to get two points each turn, people will form little clusters that repeatedly thumb noses instead, getting one point each instead. This means that they’re being half as effective at playing as they were thirty seconds ago, simply because they’ve been given the option to play it safe at the cost of other players. This, to me, is a fascinating example of how being given the option to tune out and avoid cooperation produces instant defensiveness and a change in social cohesion.

Perhaps some of you will by now have figured out where I’m going with these games. Choosing different gestures in the game is very much like choosing tokens to collect in life. Pairwise interactions are rather like small versions of the conversations we have every day. Rock, paper and scissors equate to different forms of social value, such as sexiness, intelligence, or likability. Nose thumbing equates to extracting involuntary tokens from others for personal validation gain. Whereas our choice of gestures in the game is conscious and our choice of tokens in life is non-conscious, the same patterns of defensive behavior can be seen. In fact, in non-conscious group behavior, we tend toward more predictable responses. Thus, playing Scissors Dilemma Party gives us an interesting, lightweight model for looking at how social groups form and interact.

Intriguing, I hear you say, but still not yet a conclusive solution to the world’s ills. True. To see the awesome social significance of Scissors Dilemma Party in all its glory, you’ll have to read Adventures in Game Theory Part Three.

Adventures in Game Theory, Part One

Question: Can playing simple games like Rock Paper Scissors teach us how to be better leaders, help us build effective, equitable organizations, and pave the way to a more harmonious world?
Answer: Yes! Undoubtedly!

If you want to know how, and why I would make such a ridiculous-sounding assertion, then I invite you to come with me on a journey into a dark and mysterious world of theoretical applied improv. The journey will be long and arduous (four blog posts), but for those who stick with me, there is treasure in store.

The starting point in this adventure is the Prisoner’s Dilemma–perhaps the best-known finding from Game Theory: a branch of math that studies how people or animals compete. Simply put, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a formal description of a kind of situation we often face in life, in which cooperation between two parties comes with both risks and benefits, but where failing to cooperate is both safe and predictable.

People have studies Prisoner’s Dilemma very extensively. There have been research papers about it, world-spanning experiments, online tournaments between competing software programs, and dozens of books on the subject. Not satisfied by all this, I wanted to see what happened when I turned Prisoner’s Dilemma into an improv game and took it to Behavior Lab.

To this end, I created a game called Dilemma Party–a little like Rock Paper Scissors but with two  options per player instead of the traditional three. Here’s a slide I used at the ASTD conference in Orlando recently (more on that in later posts), that shows how to play, and how the scoring works.

As you can see, players have the option of thumbing their nose at their opponent or offering them an invisible gift. Offering a gift presents the best opportunity for mutual gain but comes with a risk. If the other player thumbs their nose at you, you get nothing and your opponent walks away with a nice stack of points. Thumbing your nose means that you always win something, regardless of what the other player does–it’s a safer bet but not a particularly friendly one.

Players of the game interact for an unspecified period of time, trying to rack up as many points as they can. They’re milling in a large group and can swap partners any time they like, or stay with their current partner if they prefer. What do you suppose happens if you put fifty random people in a room together and get them to play? Any guesses on what strategies they pick?

The answer is that it depends on the group. Put members of the general public together and the group norms to almost universally thumbing noses after a short time, with a few individuals doggedly giving gifts regardless of the losses they incur. However, put a room full of professional trainers together and the group norms to universal gift giving almost as fast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pairs of players who settle on gift-giving tend to stay together. Pairs where one or more players thumb noses don’t stay together very long.

For the most part, people who aren’t already familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma do a very natural thing when reasoning about scores. They realize that by nose-thumbing, they can’t lose, so they keep doing it, even though they miss out on the chance to make more points by building stable relationships. No big surprises there.

Where the game gets interesting is when you look at how the rich, multi-layered nature of human interaction interferes with our stable assumptions about how the game should work. For instance, in one group, players repeatedly thumbed their opponents but then shared high-fives after each interaction. What this suggests is that the players knew they were making cautious, uncooperative choices, but still wanted to check in with each other to show that they were really friendly people at heart. Thumbing their noses felt awkward and antisocial but they didn’t want to change tactics and consequently lose! Giving high-fives was a way of subverting the game, and showing their opponents that they weren’t really in competition.

Also, those people who’ve spent a lot of time in a training, group therapy, or social workshop setting tend to repeatedly offer gifts, regardless of the consequences. I suspect that this has more to do with how those people are mentally parsing the game, rather than suggesting that they have fundamentally different personalities. These are people who’ve played similar games before and aware of the implications of cooperation. That makes them behave differently because perceiving themselves as cooperative affords them more validation than the points offered by the game. They’d rather feel positive and socially useful than win, even if that feeling comes with a very light dose of martyrdom.

Underpinning both of these reactions is the fascinating interplay between the choices made consciously in the game, and the very similar game of token exchange that the players are playing underneath. Because we load the game into the conscious awareness of the players, the acquisition of points can’t help but be held as an extrinsic goal. And because there aren’t cash prizes on offer, that goal comes with low priority. This means that the intrinsic motivations of the players guide their strategies. Thus, while we’re unlikely to get unbiased information about Prisoner’s Dilemma itself from the game, it shines a fascinating light on our motivations.

Interesting, I think, but not a recipe for social harmony just yet. There’s more we can do with these games. Much more. And for that, you’ll have to read my Adventures in Game Theory Part Two.

NOTE: This blog entry first appeared in my improv blog: Thinking Improv

Feline Imagination

I have just witnessed one of the more strange, wonderful and hilarious things I’ve ever seen: a cat trying to implement an idea. Do cats have imagination? Can they conceive of novel plans involving tool use and then set about putting them creatively into action? The answer would appear to be a giant yes.

My neighbor’s cat likes to sit on the path. However, today it’s cold. It would be much nicer to sit on something soft and warm on the path. So my cat brought a rag out of the house and took it to the place on the path where it likes to sit. However, the rag wasn’t very large, and the cat seemed unable to realize that the best way to arrange itself on the rag was to let go of it first.

It then rotated slowly several times on the path in a surreal crouching gait, forlornly trying to optimize both the rag and its backside at the same time. It badly wanted to sit down on the rag while keeping it in its mouth at the same time. For a brief period, this seemed to work; then the whole notion was abandoned. The rag now lies on the steps of the deck—a failed first step at feline civilization. The cat is sitting on the wooden deck looking vaguely disgruntled.

This isn’t a particularly impressive outcome, I grant you. However, the cat tried, which is more than I’ve seen the dog do.

There would seem to be several interesting takeaway lessons from this:

1: Cats really are hilarious. Those annoying ‘interwebs’ people had it right all along.

2: Creative planning is more widespread in mammals than we might imagine.

3: Somewhat more speculatively: Cats are motivated by personal comfort in the way that parrots are motivated by jealousy. If we want to do psychology experiments with cats, they should probably involve warm air vents, good views, and plenty of velvet.


A blog about everything

I have wondered why, given that my brain likes to wander between subjects, that I’ve tried create single topic blogs in the past. I have one on LiveJournal, which is horribly maintained. I have a blog on psychology and improv, and I have another one on digital physics. None of them get the attention they deserve.

This, then, is an experiment in doing things a little differently. The Tinker Point is intended to be a rallying point for all the unfiltered ideas I come up with, regardless of the subject matter.