Street Gangs, Militias, Great Power Armies, & Game Theory

Street Gangs, Militias, Great Power Armies, & Game Theory

As we are learning with the War in Ukraine, understanding Game Theory is important if we want to understand why war breaks out, how long and how deadly a war will be, and how a war will come to a conclusion. Game Theory helps us think about the decision-making of the parties involved in a war and the incentives and risks that they face. Television pundits, journalists, politicians, and policy analysts are all engaging in game-theoretic evaluations of the current conflict in Ukraine to help think about a way that Russia could leave Ukraine without completely destroying the country and its population.
 
 
While much of the world has recently been thinking about Game Theory in the context of two large warring nations, the most basic way to think about and understand game theory is usually a two person situation known as the prisoner’s dilemma.  Conceptualizing Game Theory in this basic format gives us a framework that we can use to understand larger conflicts and dilemmas where parties have to make decisions anticipating the outcomes of their choices, the responses and choices of their opponents, and the subsequent reactions and decisions of everyone else along the way. The simple framework from a two person prisoner’s dilemma scales well.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about Game Theory and how size doesn’t seem to matter when we think in a game-theoretic way. He writes:
 
 
“The same psychological or game-theoretic dynamics that govern whether quarreling coalitions will threaten, back down, bluff, engage, escalate, fight on, or surrender apply whether the coalitions are street gangs, militias, or armies of great powers. Presumably this is because humans are social animals who aggregate into coalitions, which amalgamate into larger coalitions, and so on.”
 
 
Our coalitions are large and complex, but they are still organized around humans. Our social nature is predictable, meaning that Game Theory can apply in any human coalition, regardless of size. Quite often our large coalitions, especially coalitions that employ violence, are ultimately lead by a single individual who can command the decisions to use violence. This all contributes to Game Theory’s application across two people interactions, high school gangs, or armies comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Game Theory helps us understand the decision-making of all the groups, regardless of their complexity and size.
Game Theory of Mind

Game Theory Interactions with Self Deception

“Self deception is useful only when you’re playing against an opponent who can take your mental state into account,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain. “Sabotaging yourself works only when you’re playing against an opponent with a theory-of-mind.” 
When we think about other people and their actions, we don’t just look at the hard facts of what happened. We spend a lot of time trying to read small cues and context to understand why someone did something. We project ourselves into the situation, we imagine other people in their situation, and sometimes we even imagine a person from space with no human social awareness in the situation. We strive to understand what types of mental processes and thoughts may have been taking place in the person’s head at the time of an action or decision. From sports, to politics, to office gossip, we attempt to guess the mental state of others, we hold a theory of what is taking place in their mind.
This is a key part of game theory. We have to be able to deduce that others are thinking something and that they are interpreting, reacting to, and making decisions about a given situation and will change their behavior in response to the way that we think and behave. In this world, social decisions and consequences along with individual actions become very complex very fast. What often matters is not so much a given outcome, but the intent behind the outcome. Was this person just trying to make themselves richer, or did they have more altruistic motives of helping everyone? Did this person really want to develop a new type of road to help improve traffic, or again, were they just out for themselves? Is my crime conspirator going to rat me out, or will he keep his mouth shut? These are the types of questions and things we think about when we assume other people have minds that work like ours. 
This brings in self-deception. If we are always looking at others trying to sort out their motives, and if they are doing the same to us, then we better have a really  good poker face when we are lying–or when we are just not quite telling the full truth. “we, humans, must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a disadvantage relative to others who play along,” the authors white in their book. Many of us have probably been in a situation where we tried to be truthful and honest, but were afraid that someone who was not truthful could interfere with our plans by seeming to be honest but really lying. They may have made great impressions and possibly gotten the reward we hoped for, ultimately preventing us from doing something good while they scammed the situation. This is why we are under pressure to self-deceive, to over promise, to inflate ourselves, and to fudge the details. After all, if we know we can do something the best, we better make sure we have the chance and don’t have it stolen by someone else who might be lying and less capable. Competing with other smart social creatures encourages self-deception so that we can feel good about ourselves and appear more genuine when we are distorting the facts so that we can get ahead.