What Are the Criticisms of Game Theory?


Vincent White

Game theory is a widely used framework in economics, political science, and other fields to study strategic decision-making. It has been used to analyze a wide range of situations, from business competition to international conflict.

However, like any other theory, game theory has its fair share of criticisms. In this article, we will explore some of the most common criticisms of game theory.

1. Unrealistic assumptions

One of the main criticisms of game theory is that it relies on unrealistic assumptions about human behavior. For example, game theorists often assume that people are rational and self-interested. However, in reality, people often act irrationally and make decisions based on factors other than self-interest.


  • In the classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario, two suspects are offered reduced sentences if they betray each other. Game theory assumes that both suspects will choose to betray each other because it is in their self-interest.

    However, in real life, people often cooperate even when it is not in their immediate self-interest.

  • Another example is the ultimatum game, where one player proposes a division of a sum of money and the other player can either accept or reject the offer. Game theory predicts that players will always act selfishly and offer as little as possible and that responders will always reject offers that are less than an equal split. However, studies have shown that responders often reject unfair offers even if it means receiving nothing.

2. Lack of empirical evidence

Another criticism of game theory is that it lacks empirical evidence to support its predictions. Many game theorists rely on mathematical models to make predictions about human behavior without testing these models in real-world situations.


  • The hawk-dove game is often used to model conflict situations, such as war or competition. However, there is little empirical evidence to support the idea that people always act like hawks or doves in these situations. In some cases, people may choose to negotiate or find other ways to resolve conflicts.

3. Limited scope

A third criticism of game theory is that it has a limited scope. Game theory can only be applied to situations where there are a small number of players, each with a limited set of choices.

  • Game theory is not well-suited for analyzing complex social systems such as markets or political institutions, which involve many players and unpredictable outcomes.


In conclusion, while game theory has been a useful framework for understanding strategic decision-making in many fields, it also has its limitations and criticisms. These include unrealistic assumptions about human behavior, a lack of empirical evidence to support its predictions, and a limited scope. It is important to keep these criticisms in mind when applying game theory to real-world situations and to consider alternative approaches that may better capture the complexities of human behavior.