What Does Game Theory Teach Us About the Real World?


Jane Flores

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that studies the strategic interactions between individuals or groups. It has applications in a wide range of fields, from economics and political science to psychology and biology.

But what does game theory teach us about the real world? In this article, we will explore some of the key insights that game theory provides.

1. Rationality is not always the best strategy

One of the fundamental assumptions of game theory is that players are rational: they act in their own self-interest and try to maximize their payoff. However, this assumption can sometimes lead to counterintuitive results.

For example, consider the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” game, where two suspects are arrested for a crime and have to decide whether to confess or remain silent. If both remain silent, they both get a light sentence.

If one confesses and implicates the other, the confessor goes free while the other gets a heavy sentence. If both confess, they both get a moderate sentence.

From a rational perspective, each prisoner should confess: if one remains silent while the other confesses, the silent one gets a heavy sentence; if both remain silent, they both get a light sentence; but if one confesses while the other remains silent, the confessor goes free. However, if both prisoners had cooperated and remained silent, they would have gotten a better outcome than if both had acted rationally.

2. Cooperation can be sustained through repeated interactions

In many games, players interact with each other repeatedly over time. This allows them to build up reputations and learn from each other’s behavior. In such situations, cooperation can be sustained even among self-interested players.

For example, consider the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma” game where two players play multiple rounds of prisoner’s dilemma with each other. In this case, players can establish trust over time by cooperating in the early rounds and punishing defections in later rounds. This can lead to a “tit-for-tat” strategy where each player cooperates if the other player cooperated in the previous round, and defects otherwise.

3. The importance of information

Game theory also highlights the importance of information in strategic interactions. Players who have more information about their opponents’ strategies or payoffs are at an advantage.

For example, consider a game where two players have to choose between two options: A or B. If both choose A, they both get a payoff of 1.

If both choose B, they both get a payoff of 2. If one chooses A while the other chooses B, the one who chose B gets a payoff of 3 while the one who chose A gets a payoff of 0.

If one player knows that the other player always chooses A, then the first player can exploit this by always choosing B and getting a higher payoff. However, if both players are uncertain about each other’s strategies, they may end up choosing A even though they would both be better off choosing B.

4. The role of incentives

Finally, game theory teaches us about the importance of incentives in shaping behavior. In many situations, people’s behavior is influenced not just by their own payoffs but also by how their actions affect others.

For example, consider a company that wants to encourage its employees to work harder. It could offer them financial incentives such as bonuses or promotions for meeting certain Targets. However, if these incentives are poorly designed or perceived as unfair, they may actually demotivate employees and lead to worse performance.

Overall, game theory provides valuable insights into strategic interactions in the real world. By understanding how rationality, repeated interactions, information and incentives shape behavior, we can make better decisions and design better institutions for our societies.