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One of the most charming features of game theory is the almost limitless depths of evil to which it can sink.
Your garden-variety evils act against your values. Your better class of evil, like Voldemort and the folk-tale version of Satan, use your greed to trick you into acting against your own values, then grab away the promised reward at the last moment. But even demons and dark wizards can only do this once or twice before most victims wise up and decide that taking their advice is a bad idea. Game theory can force you to betray your deepest principles for no lasting benefit again and again, and still leave you convinced that your behavior was rational.
Some of the examples in this post probably wouldn't work in reality; they're more of a reductio ad absurdum of the so-called homo economicus who acts free from any feelings of altruism or trust. But others are lifted directly from real life where seemingly intelligent people genuinely fall for them. And even the ones that don't work with real people might be valuable in modeling institutions or governments.
Of the following examples, the first three are from The Art of Strategy; the second three are relatively classic problems taken from around the Internet. A few have been mentioned in the comments here already and are reposted for people who didn't catch them the first time.
Stalin once (supposedly) said that “He who casts the votes determines nothing; he who counts the votes determines everything “ But he was being insufficiently cynical. He who chooses the voting system may determine just as much as the other two players.
The Art of Strategy gives some good examples of this principle: here's an adaptation of one of them. Three managers are debating whether to give a Distinguished Employee Award to a certain worker. If the worker gets the award, she must receive one of two prizes: a $50 gift certificate, or a $10,000 bonus.
One manager loves the employee and wants her to get the $10,000; if she can't get the $10,000, she should at least get a gift certificate. A second manager acknowledges her contribution but is mostly driven by cost-cutting; she'd be happiest giving her the gift certificate, but would rather refuse to recognize her entirely than lose $10,000. And the third manager dislikes her and doesn't want to recognize her at all - but she also doesn't want the company to gain a reputation for stinginess, so if she gets recognized she'd rather give her the $10,000 than be so pathetic as to give her the cheap certificate.
The managers arrange a meeting to determine the employee's fate. If the agenda tells them to vote for or against giving her an award, and then proceed to determine the prize afterwards if she wins, then things will not go well for the employee. Why not? Because the managers reason as follows: if she gets the award, Manager 1 and Manager 3 will vote for the $10,000 prize, and Manager 2 will vote for the certificate. Therefore, voting for her to get the award is practically the same as voting for her to get the $10,000 prize. That means Manager 1, who wants her to get the prize, will vote yes on the award, but Managers 2 and 3, who both prefer no award to the $10,000, will strategically vote not to give her the award. Result: she doesn't get recognized for her distinguished service.
But suppose the employee involved happens to be the secretary arranging the meeting where the vote will take place. She makes a seemingly trivial change to the agenda: the managers will vote for what the prize should be first, and then vote on whether to give it to her.
If the managers decide the appropriate prize is $10,000, then the motion to give the award will fail for exactly the same reasons it did above. But if the managers decide the certificate is appropriate, then Manager 1 and 2, who both prefer the certificate to nothing, will vote in favor of giving the award. So the three managers, thinking strategically, realize that the decision before them, which looks like “$10 grand or certificate”, is really “No award or certificate”. Since 1 and 2 both prefer the certificate to nothing, they vote that the certificate is the appropriate prize (even though Manager 1 doesn't really believe this) and the employee ends out with the gift certificate.
But if the secretary is really smart, she may set the agenda as follows: The managers first vote whether or not to give $10,000, and if that fails, they next vote whether or not to give the certificate; if both votes fail the employee gets nothing. Here the managers realize that if the first vote (for $10,000) fails, the next vote (certificate or nothing) will pass, since two managers prefer certificate to nothing as mentioned before. So the true choice in the first vote is “$10,000 versus certificate”. Since two managers (1 and 3) prefer the $10,000 to the certificate, those two start by voting to give the full $10,000, and this is what the employee gets.
So we see that all three options are possible outcomes, and that the true power rests not in the hands of any individual manager, but in the secretary who determines how the voting takes place.
Americans have a head start in understanding the pitfalls of voting systems thanks to the so-called two party system. Every four years, they face quandaries like "If leftists like me vote for Nader instead of Gore just because we like him better, are we going to end up electing Bush because we've split the leftist vote?"
Empirically, yes. The 60,000 Florida citizens who voted Green in 2000 didn't elect Nader. However, they did make Gore lose to Bush by a mere 500 votes. The last post discussed a Vickrey auction, a style of auction in which you have have no incentive to bid anything except your true value. Wouldn't it be nice if we had an electoral system with the same property: one where you should always vote for the candidate you actually support? If such a system existed, we would have ample reason to institute it and could rest assured that no modern-day Stalin was manipulating us via the choice of voting system we used.
Some countries do claim to have better systems than the simple winner-takes-all approach of the United States. My own adopted homeland of Ireland uses a system called “single transferable vote” (also called instant-runoff vote), in which voters rank the X candidates from 1 to X. If a candidate has the majority of first preference votes (or a number of first preference votes greater than the number of positions to fill divided by the number of candidates, in elections with multiple potential winners like legislative elections), then that candidate wins and any surplus votes go to their voters' next preference. If no one meets the quota, then the least popular candidate is eliminated and their second preference votes become first preferences. The system continues until all available seats are full.
For example, suppose I voted (1: Nader), (2: Gore), (3: Bush). The election officials tally all the votes and find that Gore has 49 million first preferences, Bush has 50 million, and Nader has 5 million. There's only one presidency, so a candidate would have to have a majority of votes (greater than 52 million out of 104 million) to win. Since no one meets that quota, the lowest ranked candidate gets eliminated - in this case, Nader. My vote now goes to my second preference, Gore. If 4 million Nader voters put Gore second versus 1 million who put Bush second, the tally's now at 53 million Gore, 51 million Bush. Gore has greater than 52 million and wins the election - the opposite result from if we'd elected a president the traditional way.
Another system called Condorcet voting also uses a list of all candidates ranked in order, but uses the information to run mock runoffs between each of them. So a Condorcet system would use the ballots to run a Gore/Nader match (which Gore would win), a Gore/Bush match (which Gore would win), and a Bush/Nader match (which Bush would win). Since Gore won all of his matches, he becomes President. This becomes complicated when no candidate wins all of his matches (imagine Gore beating Nader, Bush beating Gore, but Nader beating Bush in a sort of Presidential rock-paper-scissors.) Condorcet voting has various options to resolve this; some systems give victory to the candidate whose greatest loss was by the smallest margin, and others to candidates who defeated the greatest number of other candidates.
Do these systems avoid the strategic voting that plagues American elections? No. For example, both Single Transferable Vote and Condorcet voting sometimes provide incentives to rank a candidate with a greater chance of winning higher than a candidate you prefer - that is, the same "vote Gore instead of Nader" dilemma you get in traditional first-past-the-post.
There are many other electoral systems in use around the world, including several more with ranking of candidates, a few that do different sorts of runoffs, and even some that ask you to give a numerical rating to each candidate (for example “Nader 10, Gore 6, Bush -100000”). Some of them even manage to eliminate the temptation to rank a non-preferred candidate first. But these work only at the expense of incentivizing other strategic manuevers, like defining “approved candidate” differently or exaggerating the difference between two candidates.
So is there any voting system that automatically reflects the will of the populace in every way without encouraging tactical voting? No. Various proofs, including the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem and the better-known Arrow Impossibility Theorem show that many of the criteria by which we would naturally judge voting systems are mutually incompatible and that all reasonable systems must contain at least some small element of tactics (one example of an unreasonable system that eliminates tactical voting is picking one ballot at random and determining the results based solely on its preferences; the precise text of the theorem rules out “nondeterministic or dictatorial” methods).
This means that each voting system has its own benefits and drawbacks, and that which one people use is largely a matter of preference. Some of these preferences reflect genuine concern about the differences between voting systems: for example, is it better to make sure your system always elects the Condorcet winner, even if that means the system penalizes candidates who are too similar to other candidates? Is it better to have a system where you can guarantee that participating in the election always makes your candidate more likely to win, or one where you can be sure that everyone voting exactly the opposite will never elect the same candidate?
But in practice, these preferences tend to be political and self-interested. This was recently apparent in Britain, which voted last year on a referendum to change the voting system. The Liberal Democrats, who were perpetually stuck in the same third-place situation as Nader in the States, supported a change to a form of instant runoff voting which would have made voting Lib Dem a much more palatable option; the two major parties opposed it probably for exactly that reason.
Although no single voting system is mathematically perfect, several do seem to do better on the criteria that real people care about; look over Wikipedia's section on the strengths and weaknesses of different voting systems to see which one looks best.
Some people have things. Other people want them. Economists agree that the eventual price will be set by supply and demand, but both parties have tragically misplaced their copies of the Big Book Of Levels Of Supply And Demand For All Goods. They're going to have to decide on a price by themselves.
When the transaction can be modeled by the interaction of one seller and one buyer, this kind of decision usually looks like bargaining. When it's best modeled as one seller and multiple buyers (or vice versa), the decision usually looks like an auction. Many buyers and many sellers produce a marketplace, but this is complicated and we'll stick to bargains and auctions for now.
Simple bargains bear some similarity to the Ultimatum Game. Suppose an antique dealer has a table she values at $50, and I go to the antique store and fall in love with it, believing it will add $400 worth of classiness to my room. The dealer should never sell for less than $50, and I should never buy for more than $400, but any value in between would benefit both of us. More specifically, it would give us a combined $350 profit. The remaining question is how to divide that $350 pot.
If I make an offer to buy at $60, I'm proposing to split the pot "$10 for you, $340 for me". If the dealer makes a counter-offer of $225, she's offering "$175 for you, $175 for me" - or an even split.
Each round of bargaining resembles the Ultimatum Game because one player proposes to split a pot, and the other player accepts or rejects. If the other player rejects the offer (for example, the dealer refuses to sell it for $60) then the deal falls through and neither of us gets any money.
But bargaining is unlike the Ultimatum Game for several reasons. First, neither player is the designated "offer-maker"; either player may begin by making an offer. Second, the game doesn't end after one round; if the dealer rejects my offer, she can make a counter-offer of her own. Third, and maybe most important, neither player is exactly sure about the size of the pot: I don't walk in knowing that the dealer bought the table for $50, and I may not really be sure I value the table at $400.
Our intuition tells us that the fairest method is to split the profits evenly at a price of $225. This number forms a useful Schelling point (remember those?) that prevents the hassle of further bargaining.
The Art of Strategy (see the beginning of Ch. 11) includes a proof that an even split is the rational choice under certain artificial assumptions. Imagine a store selling souvenirs for the 2012 Olympics. They make $1000/day each of the sixteen days the Olympics are going on. Unfortunately, the day before the Olympics, the workers decide to strike; the store will make no money without workers, and they don't have enough time to hire scabs.
Suppose Britain has some very strange labor laws that mandate the following negotiation procedure: on each odd numbered day of the Olympics, the labor union representative will approach the boss and make an offer; the boss can either accept it or reject it. On each even numbered day, the boss makes the offer to the labor union.
So if the negotiations were to drag on to the sixteenth and last day of the Olympics, on that even-numbered day the boss would approach the labor union rep. They're both the sort of straw man rationalists who would take 99-1 splits on the Ultimatum Game, so she offers the labor union rep $1 of the $1000. Since it's the last day of the Olympics and she's a straw man rationalist, the rep accepts.
But on the fifteenth day of the Olympics, the labor union rep will approach the boss. She knows that if no deal is struck today, she'll end out with $1 and the boss will end out with $999. She has to convince the boss to accept a deal on the fifteenth day instead of waiting until the sixteenth. So she offers $1 of the profits from the fifteenth day to the boss, with the labor union keeping the rest; now their totals are $1000 for the workers, $1000 for the boss. Since $1000 is better than $999, the boss agrees to these terms and the strike is ended on the fifteenth day.
We can see by this logic that on odd numbered days the boss and workers get the same amount, and on even numbered days the boss gets more than the workers but the ratio converges to 1:1 as the length of the negotiations increase. If they were negotiating an indefinite contract, then even if the boss made the first move we might expect her to offer an even split.
So both some intuitive and some mathematical arguments lead us to converge on this idea of an even split of the sort that gives us the table for $225. But if I want to be a “hard bargainer” - the kind of person who manages to get the table for less than $225 - I have a couple of things I could try.
I could deceive the seller as to how much I valued the table. This is a pretty traditional bargaining tactic: “That old piece of junk? I'd be doing you a favor for taking it off your hands.” Here I'm implicitly claiming that the dealer must have paid less than $50, and that I would get less than $400 worth of value. If the dealer paid $20 and I'd only value it to the tune of $300, then splitting the profit evenly would mean a final price of $160. The dealer could then be expected to counter my move with his own claim as to the table's value: “$160? Do I look like I was born yesterday? This table was old in the time of the Norman Conquest! Its wood comes from a tree that grows on an enchanted island in the Freptane Sea which appears for only one day every seven years!” The final price might be determined by how plausible we each considered the other's claims.
Or I could rig the Ultimatum Game. Used car dealerships are notorious for adding on “extras” after you've agreed on a price over the phone (“Well yes, we agreed the car was $5999, but if you want a steering wheel, that costs another $200.”) Somebody (possibly an LWer?) proposed showing up to the car dealership without any cash or credit cards, just a check made out for the agreed-upon amount; the dealer now has no choice but to either take the money or forget about the whole deal. In theory, I could go to the antique dealer with a check made out for $60 and he wouldn't have a lot of options (though do remember that people usually reject ultimata of below about 70-30). The classic bargaining tactic of “I am but a poor chimney sweep with only a few dollars to my name and seven small children to feed and I could never afford a price above $60” seems closely related to this strategy.
And although we're still technically talking about transactions with only one buyer and seller, the mere threat of another seller can change the balance of power drastically. Suppose I tell the dealer I know of another dealer who sells modern art for a fixed price of $300, and that the modern art would add exactly as much classiness to my room as this antique table - that is, I only want one of the two and I'm indifferent between them. Now we're no longer talking about coming up with a price between $50 and $400 - anything over $300 and I'll reject it and go to the other guy. Now we're talking about splitting the $250 profit between $50 and $300, and if we split it evenly I should expect to pay $175.
(why not $299? After all, the dealer knows $299 is better than my other offer. Because we're still playing the Ultimatum Game, that's why. And if it was $299, then having a second option - art that I like as much as the table - would actually make my bargaining position worse - after all, I was getting it for $225 before.)
Negotiation gurus call this backup option the BATNA (“Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement”) and consider it a useful thing to have. If only one participant in the negotiation has a BATNA greater than zero, that person is less desperate, needs the agreement less, and can hold out for a better deal - just as my $300 art allowed me to lower the asking price of the table from $225 to $175.
This “one buyer, one seller” model is artificial, but from here we can start to see how the real world existence of other buyers and sellers serve as BATNAs for both parties and how such negotiations eventually create the supply and demand of the marketplace.
The remaining case is one seller and multiple buyers (or vice versa). Here the seller's BATNA is “sell it to the other guy”, and so a successful buyer must beat the other guy's price. In practice, this takes the form of an auction (why is this different than the previous example? Partly because in the previous example, we were comparing a negotiable commodity - the table - to a fixed price commodity - the art.)
How much should you bid at an auction? In the so-called English auction (the classic auction where a crazy man stands at the front shouting “Eighty!!! Eighty!!! We have eighty!!! Do I hear eighty-five?!? Eighty-five?!? Eighty-five to the man in the straw hat!!! Do I hear ninety?!?) the answer should be pretty obvious: keep bidding infinitesmally more than the last guy until you reach your value for the product, then stop. For example, with the $400 table, keep bidding until the price approaches $400.
But what about a sealed-bid auction, where everyone hands the auctioneer their bid and the auctioneer gives the product to the highest? Or what about the so-called “Dutch auction” where the auctioneer starts high and goes lower until someone bites (“A hundred?!? Anyone for a hundred?!? No?!? Ninety-five?!? Anyone for...yes?!? Sold for ninety-five to the man in the straw hat!!!).
The rookie mistake is to bid the amount you value the product. Remember, economists define “the amount you value the product” as “the price at which you would be indifferent between having the product and just keeping the money”. If you go to an auction planning to bid your true value, you should expect to get absolutely zero benefit out of the experience. Instead, you should bid infinitesimally more than what you predict the next highest bidder will pay, as long as this is below your value.
Thus, the auction beloved by economists as perhaps the purest example of auction forms is the Vickrey, in which everyone submits a sealed bid, the highest bidder wins, and she pays the amount of the second-highest bid. This auction has a certain very elegant property, which is that here the dominant strategy is to bid your true value. Why?
Suppose you value a table at $400. If you try to game the system by bidding $350 instead of $400, you may lose out and can at best break even. Why? Because if the highest other bid was above $400, you wouldn't win the table in either case, and your ploy profits you nothing. And if the highest other bid was between $350 and $400 (let's say $375), now you lose the table and make $0 profit, as opposed to the $25 profit you would have made if you had bid your true value of $400, won, and paid the second-highest bid of $375. And if everyone else is below $350 (let's say $300) then you would have paid $300 in either case, and again your ploy profits you nothing. Bid above your true valuation (let's say $450) and you face similar consequences: either you wouldn't have gotten the table anyway, you get the table for the same amount as before, or you get the table for a value between $400 and $450 and now you're taking a loss.
In the real world, English, Dutch, sealed-bid and Vickrey auctions all differ a little in ways like how much information they give the bidders about each other, or whether people get caught up in the excitement of bidding, or what to do when you don't really know your true valuation. But in simplified rational models, they all end at an identical price: the true valuation of the second-highest bidder.
In conclusion, the gentlemanly way to bargain is to split the difference in profits between your and your partner's best alternative to an agreement, and gentlemanly auctions tend to end at the value of the second-highest participant. Some less gentlemanly alternatives are also available and will be discussed later.
The most commonly used introduction to signaling, promoted both by Robin Hanson and in The Art of Strategy, starts with college degrees. Suppose, there are two kinds of people, smart people and stupid people; and suppose, with wild starry-eyed optimism, that the populace is split 50-50 between them. Smart people would add enough value to a company to be worth a $100,000 salary each year, but stupid people would only be worth $40,000. And employers, no matter how hard they try to come up with silly lateral-thinking interview questions like “How many ping-pong balls could fit in the Sistine Chapel?”, can't tell the difference between them.
Now suppose a certain college course, which costs $50,000, passes all smart people but flunks half the stupid people. A strategic employer might declare a policy of hiring (for a one year job; let's keep this model simple) graduates at $100,000 and non-graduates at $40,000.
Why? Consider the thought process of a smart person when deciding whether or not to take the course. She thinks “I am smart, so if I take the course, I will certainly pass. Then I will make an extra $60,000 at this job. So my costs are $50,000, and my benefits are $60,000. Sounds like a good deal.”
The stupid person, on the other hand, thinks: “As a stupid person, if I take the course, I have a 50% chance of passing and making $60,000 extra, and a 50% chance of failing and making $0 extra. My expected benefit is $30,000, but my expected cost is $50,000. I'll stay out of school and take the $40,000 salary for non-graduates.”
...assuming that stupid people all know they're stupid, and that they're all perfectly rational experts at game theory, to name two of several dubious premises here. Yet despite its flaws, this model does give some interesting results. For example, it suggests that rational employers will base decisions upon - and rational employees enroll in - college courses, even if those courses teach nothing of any value. So an investment bank might reject someone who had no college education, even while hiring someone who studied Art History, not known for its relevance to derivative trading.
We'll return to the specific example of education later, but for now it is more important to focus on the general definition that X signals Y if X is more likely to be true when Y is true than when Y is false. Amoral self-interested agents after the $60,000 salary bonus for intelligence, whether they are smart or stupid, will always say “Yes, I'm smart” if you ask them. So saying “I am smart” is not a signal of intelligence. Having a college degree is a signal of intelligence, because a smart person is more likely to get one than a stupid person.
Life frequently throws us into situations where we want to convince other people of something. If we are employees, we want to convince bosses we are skillful, honest, and hard-working. If we run the company, we want to convince customers we have superior products. If we are on the dating scene, we want to show potential mates that we are charming, funny, wealthy, interesting, you name it.
In some of these cases, mere assertion goes a long way. If I tell my employer at a job interview that I speak fluent Spanish, I'll probably get asked to talk to a Spanish-speaker at my job, will either succeed or fail, and if I fail will have a lot of questions to answer and probably get fired - or at the very least be in more trouble than if I'd just admitted I didn't speak Spanish to begin with. Here society and its system of reputational penalties help turn mere assertion into a credible signal: asserting I speak Spanish is costlier if I don't speak Spanish than if I do, and so is believable.
In other cases, mere assertion doesn't work. If I'm at a seedy bar looking for a one-night stand, I can tell a girl I'm totally a multimillionaire and feel relatively sure I won't be found out until after that one night - and so in this she would be naive to believe me, unless I did something only a real multimillionaire could, like give her an expensive diamond necklace.
How expensive a diamond necklace, exactly? To absolutely prove I am a millionaire, only a million dollars worth of diamonds will do; $10,000 worth of diamonds could in theory come from anyone with at least $10,000. But in practice, people only care so much about impressing a girl at a seedy bar; if everyone cares about the same amount, the amount they'll spend on the signal depends mostly on their marginal utility of money, which in turn depends mostly on how much they have. Both a millionaire and a tenthousandaire can afford to buy $10,000 worth of diamonds, but only the millionaire can afford to buy $10,000 worth of diamonds on a whim. If in general people are only willing to spend 1% of their money on an impulse gift, then $10,000 is sufficient evidence that I am a millionaire.
But when the stakes are high, signals can get prohibitively costly. If a dozen millionaires are wooing Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, and willing to spend arbitrarily much money on her - and if they all believe Helen will choose the richest among them - then if I only spend $10,000 on her I'll be outshone by a millionaire who spends the full million. Thus, if I want any chance with her at all, then even if I am genuinely the richest man around I might have to squander my entire fortune on diamonds.
This raises an important point: signaling can be really horrible. What if none of us are entirely sure how much Helen's other suitors have? It might be rational for all of us to spend everything we have on diamonds for her. Then twelve millionaires lose their fortunes, eleven of them for nothing. And this isn't some kind of wealth transfer - for all we know, Helen might not even like diamonds; maybe she locks them in her jewelry box after the wedding and never thinks about them again. It's about as economically productive as digging a big hole and throwing money into it.
If all twelve millionaires could get together beforehand and compare their wealth, and agree that only the wealthiest one would woo Helen, then they could all save their fortunes and the result would be exactly the same: Helen marries the wealthiest. If all twelve millionaires are remarkably trustworthy, maybe they can pull it off. But if any of them believe the others might lie about their wealth, or that one of the poorer men might covertly break their pact and woo Helen with gifts, then they've got to go through with the whole awful “everyone wastes everything they have on shiny rocks” ordeal.
Examples of destructive signaling are not limited to hypotheticals. Even if one does not believe Jared Diamond's hypothesis that Easter Island civilization collapsed after chieftains expended all of their resources trying to out-signal each other by building larger and larger stone heads, one can look at Nikolai Roussanov's study on how the dynamics of signaling games in US minority communities encourage conspicuous consumption and prevent members of those communities from investing in education and other important goods.
The Art of Strategy even advances the surprising hypothesis that corporate advertising can be a form of signaling. When a company advertises during the Super Bowl or some other high-visibility event, it costs a lot of money. To be able to afford the commercial, the company must be pretty wealthy; which in turn means it probably sells popular products and isn't going to collapse and leave its customers in the lurch. And to want to afford the commercial, the company must be pretty confident in its product: advertising that you should shop at Wal-Mart is more profitable if you shop at Wal-Mart, love it, and keep coming back than if you're likely to go to Wal-Mart, hate it, and leave without buying anything. This signaling, too, can become destructive: if every other company in your industry is buying Super Bowl commercials, then none of them have a comparative advantage and they're in exactly the same relative position as if none of them bought Super Bowl commercials - throwing money away just as in the diamond example.
Most of us cannot afford a Super Bowl commercial or a diamond necklace, and less people may build giant stone heads than during Easter Island's golden age, but a surprising amount of everyday life can be explained by signaling. For example, why did about 50% of readers get a mental flinch and an overpowering urge to correct me when I used “less” instead of “fewer” in the sentence above? According to Paul Fussell's “Guide Through The American Class System” (ht SIAI mailing list), nitpicky attention to good grammar, even when a sentence is perfectly clear without it, can be a way to signal education, and hence intelligence and probably social class. I would not dare to summarize Fussell's guide here, but it shattered my illusion that I mostly avoid thinking about class signals, and instead convinced me that pretty much everything I do from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night is a class signal. On flowers:
Anyone imagining that just any sort of flowers can be presented in the front of a house without status jeopardy would be wrong. Upper-middle-class flowers are rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis, and roses, except for bright-red ones. One way to learn which flowers are vulgar is to notice the varieties favored on Sunday-morning TV religious programs like Rex Humbard's or Robert Schuller's. There you will see primarily geraniums (red are lower than pink), poinsettias, and chrysanthemums, and you will know instantly, without even attending to the quality of the discourse, that you are looking at a high-prole setup. Other prole flowers include anything too vividly red, like red tulips. Declassed also are phlox, zinnias, salvia, gladioli, begonias, dahlias, fuchsias, and petunias. Members of the middle class will sometimes hope to mitigate the vulgarity of bright-red flowers by planting them in a rotting wheelbarrow or rowboat displayed on the front lawn, but seldom with success.
Seriously, read the essay.
In conclusion, a signal is a method of conveying information among not-necessarily-trustworthy parties by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true. Because signals are often costly, they can sometimes lead to a depressing waste of resources, but in other cases they may be the only way to believably convey important information.
The so-called “rational” solutions to the Prisoners' Dilemma and Ultimatum Game are suboptimal to say the least. Humans have various kludges added by both nature or nurture to do better, but they're not perfect and they're certainly not simple. They leave entirely open the question of what real people will actually do in these situations, a question which can only be addressed by hard data.
Why should there be real world solutions to Prisoners' Dilemmas? Because such dilemmas are a real-world problem.
If I am assigned to work on a school project with a group, I can either cooperate (work hard on the project) or defect (slack off while reaping the rewards of everyone else's hard work). If everyone defects, the project doesn't get done and we all fail - a bad outcome for everyone. If I defect but you cooperate, then I get to spend all day on the beach and still get a good grade - the best outcome for me, the worst for you. And if we all cooperate, then it's long hours in the library but at least we pass the class - a “good enough” outcome, though not quite as good as me defecting against everyone else's cooperation. This exactly mirrors the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Diplomacy - both the concept and the board game - involves Prisoners' Dilemmas. Suppose Ribbentrop of Germany and Molotov of Russia agree to a peace treaty that demilitarizes their mutual border. If both cooperate, they can move their forces to other theaters, and have moderate success there - a good enough outcome. If Russia cooperates but Germany defects, it can launch a surprise attack on an undefended Russian border and enjoy spectacular success there (for a while, at least!) - the best outcome for Germany and the worst for Russia. But if both defect, then neither has any advantage at the German-Russian border, and they lose the use of those troops in other theaters as well - a bad outcome for both. Again, the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Civilization - again, both the concept and the game - involves Prisoners' Dilemmas. If everyone follows the rules and creates a stable society (cooperates), we all do pretty well. If everyone else works hard and I turn barbarian and pillage you (defect), then I get all of your stuff without having to work for it and you get nothing - the best solution for me, the worst for you. If everyone becomes a barbarian, there's nothing to steal and we all lose out. Prisoner's Dilemma.
If everyone who worries about global warming cooperates in cutting emissions, climate change is averted and everyone is moderately happy. If everyone else cooperates in cutting emissions, but one country defects, climate change is still mostly averted, and the defector is at a significant economic advantage. If everyone defects and keeps polluting, the climate changes and everyone loses out. Again a Prisoner's Dilemma,
Prisoners' Dilemmas even come up in nature. In baboon tribes, when a female is in “heat”, males often compete for the chance to woo her. The most successful males are those who can get a friend to help fight off the other monkeys, and who then helps that friend find his own monkey loving. But these monkeys are tempted to take their friend's female as well. Two males who cooperate each seduce one female. If one cooperates and the other defects, he has a good chance at both females. But if the two can't cooperate at all, then they will be beaten off by other monkey alliances and won't get to have sex with anyone. Still a Prisoner's Dilemma!
So one might expect the real world to have produced some practical solutions to Prisoners' Dilemmas.
One of the best known such systems is called “society”. You may have heard of it. It boasts a series of norms, laws, and authority figures who will punish you when those norms and laws are broken.
Imagine that the two criminals in the original example were part of a criminal society - let's say the Mafia. The Godfather makes Alice and Bob an offer they can't refuse: turn against one another, and they will end up “sleeping with the fishes” (this concludes my knowledge of the Mafia). Now the incentives are changed: defecting against a cooperator doesn't mean walking free, it means getting murdered.
Both prisoners cooperate, and amazingly the threat of murder ends up making them both better off (this is also the gist of some of the strongest arguments against libertarianism: in Prisoner's Dilemmas, threatening force against rational agents can increase the utility of all of them!)
Even when there is no godfather, society binds people by concern about their “reputation”. If Bob got a reputation as a snitch, he might never be able to work as a criminal again. If a student gets a reputation for slacking off on projects, she might get ostracized on the playground. If a country gets a reputation for backstabbing, others might refuse to make treaties with them. If a person gets a reputation as a bandit, she might incur the hostility of those around her. If a country gets a reputation for not doing enough to fight global warming, it might...well, no one ever said it was a perfect system.
Aside from humans in society, evolution is also strongly motivated to develop a solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma. The Dilemma troubles not only lovestruck baboons, but ants, minnows, bats, and even viruses. Here the payoff is denominated not in years of jail time, nor in dollars, but in reproductive fitness and number of potential offspring - so evolution will certainly take note.
Most people, when they hear the rational arguments in favor of defecting every single time on the iterated 100-crime Prisoner's Dilemma, will feel some kind of emotional resistance. Thoughts like “Well, maybe I'll try cooperating anyway a few times, see if it works”, or “If I promised to cooperate with my opponent, then it would be dishonorable for me to defect on the last turn, even if it helps me out., or even “Bob is my friend! Think of all the good times we've had together, robbing banks and running straight into waiting police cordons. I could never betray him!”
And if two people with these sorts of emotional hangups play the Prisoner's Dilemma together, they'll end up cooperating on all hundred crimes, getting out of jail in a mere century and leaving rational utility maximizers to sit back and wonder how they did it.
Here's how: imagine you are a supervillain designing a robotic criminal (who's that go-to supervillain Kaj always uses for situations like this? Dr. Zany? Okay, let's say you're him). You expect to build several copies of this robot to work as a team, and expect they might end up playing the Prisoner's Dilemma against each other. You want them out of jail as fast as possible so they can get back to furthering your nefarious plots. So rather than have them bumble through the whole rational utility maximizing thing, you just insert an extra line of code: “in a Prisoner's Dilemma, always cooperate with other robots”. Problem solved.
Evolution followed the same strategy (no it didn't; this is a massive oversimplification). The emotions we feel around friendship, trust, altruism, and betrayal are partly a built-in hack to succeed in cooperating on Prisoner's Dilemmas where a rational utility-maximizer would defect a hundred times and fail miserably. The evolutionarily dominant strategy is commonly called “Tit-for-tat” - basically, cooperate if and only if your opponent did so last time.
This so-called "superrationality” appears even more clearly in the Ultimatum Game. Two players are given $100 to distribute among themselves in the following way: the first player proposes a distribution (for example, “Fifty for me, fifty for you”) and then the second player either accepts or rejects the distribution. If the second player accepts, the players get the money in that particular ratio. If the second player refuses, no one gets any money at all.
The first player's reasoning goes like this: “If I propose $99 for myself and $1 for my opponent, that means I get a lot of money and my opponent still has to accept. After all, she prefers $1 to $0, which is what she'll get if she refuses.
In the Prisoner's Dilemma, when players were able to communicate beforehand they could settle upon a winning strategy of precommiting to reciprocate: to take an action beneficial to their opponent if and only if their opponent took an action beneficial to them. Here, the second player should consider the same strategy: precommit to an ultimatum (hence the name) that unless Player 1 distributes the money 50-50, she will reject the offer.
But as in the Prisoner's Dilemma, this fails when you have no reason to expect your opponent to follow through on her precommitment. Imagine you're Player 2, playing a single Ultimatum Game against an opponent you never expect to meet again. You dutifully promise Player 1 that you will reject any offer less than 50-50. Player 1 offers 80-20 anyway. You reason “Well, my ultimatum failed. If I stick to it anyway, I walk away with nothing. I might as well admit it was a good try, give in, and take the $20. After all, rejecting the offer won't magically bring my chance at $50 back, and there aren't any other dealings with this Player 1 guy for it to influence.”
This is seemingly a rational way to think, but if Player 1 knows you're going to think that way, she offers 99-1, same as before, no matter how sincere your ultimatum sounds.
Notice all the similarities to the Prisoner's Dilemma: playing as a "rational economic agent" gets you a bad result, it looks like you can escape that bad result by making precommitments, but since the other player can't trust your precommitments, you're right back where you started
If evolutionary solutions to the Prisoners' Dilemma look like trust or friendship or altruism, solutions to the Ultimatum Game involve different emotions entirely. The Sultan presumably does not want you to elope with his daughter. He makes an ultimatum: “Touch my daughter, and I will kill you.” You elope with her anyway, and when his guards drag you back to his palace, you argue: “Killing me isn't going to reverse what happened. Your ultimatum has failed. All you can do now by beheading me is get blood all over your beautiful palace carpet, which hurts you as well as me - the equivalent of pointlessly passing up the last dollar in an Ultimatum Game where you've just been offered a 99-1 split.”
The Sultan might counter with an argument from social institutions: “If I let you go, I will look dishonorable. I will gain a reputation as someone people can mess with without any consequences. My choice isn't between bloody carpet and clean carpet, it's between bloody carpet and people respecting my orders, or clean carpet and people continuing to defy me.”
But he's much more likely to just shout an incoherent stream of dreadful Arabic curse words. Because just as friendship is the evolutionary solution to a Prisoner's Dilemma, so anger is the evolutionary solution to an Ultimatum Game. As various gurus and psychologists have observed, anger makes us irrational. But this is the good kind of irrationality; it's the kind of irrationality that makes us pass up a 99-1 split even though the decision costs us a dollar.
And if we know that humans are the kind of life-form that tends to experience anger, then if we're playing an Ultimatum Game against a human, and that human precommits to rejecting any offer less than 50-50, we're much more likely to believe her than if we were playing against a rational utility-maximizing agent - and so much more likely to give the human a fair offer.
It is distasteful and a little bit contradictory to the spirit of rationality to believe it should lose out so badly to simple emotion, and the problem might be correctable. Here we risk crossing the poorly charted border between game theory and decision theory and reaching ideas like timeless decision theory: that one should act as if one's choices determined the output of the algorithm one instantiates (or more simply, you should assume everyone like you will make the same choice you do, and take that into account when choosing.)
More practically, however, most real-world solutions to Prisoner's Dilemmas and Ultimatum Games still hinge on one of three things: threats of reciprocation when the length of the game is unknown, social institutions and reputation systems that make defection less attractive, and emotions ranging from cooperation to anger that are hard-wired into us by evolution. In the next post, we'll look at how these play out in practice.
Game theory is the study of how rational actors interact to pursue incentives. It starts with the same questionable premises as economics: that everyone behaves rationally, that everyone is purely self-interested1, and that desires can be exactly quantified - and uses them to investigate situations of conflict and cooperation.
Related to: Previous posts on the Prisoners' Dilemma
Sometimes Nash equilibria just don't match our intuitive criteria for a good outcome. The classic example is the Prisoners' Dilemma.
The police arrest two criminals, Alice and Bob, on suspicion of murder. The police admit they don't have enough evidence to convict the pair of murder, but they do have enough evidence to convict them of a lesser offence, possession of a firearm. They place Alice and Bob in separate cells and offer them the following deal:
“If neither of you confess, we'll have to charge you with possession, which will land you one year in jail. But if you turn state's witness against your partner, we can convict your partner of murder and give her the full twenty year sentence; in exchange, we will let you go free. Unless, that is, both of you testify against each other; in that case, we'll give you both fifteen years.”
A Nash equilibrium is an outcome in which neither player is willing to unilaterally change her strategy, and they are often applied to games in which both players move simultaneously and where decision trees are less useful.
Suppose my girlfriend and I have both lost our cell phones and cannot contact each other. Both of us would really like to spend more time at home with each other (utility 3). But both of us also have a slight preference in favor of working late and earning some overtime (utility 2). If I go home and my girlfriend's there and I can spend time with her, great. If I stay at work and make some money, that would be pretty okay too. But if I go home and my girlfriend's not there and I have to sit around alone all night, that would be the worst possible outcome (utility 1). Meanwhile, my girlfriend has the same set of preferences: she wants to spend time with me, she'd be okay with working late, but she doesn't want to sit at home alone.
This “game” has two Nash equilibria. If we both go home, neither of us regrets it: we can spend time with each other and we've both got our highest utility. If we both stay at work, again, neither of us regrets it: since my girlfriend is at work, I am glad I stayed at work instead of going home, and since I am at work, my girlfriend is glad she stayed at work instead of going home. Although we both may wish that we had both gone home, neither of us specifically regrets our own choice, given our knowledge of how the other acted.
When all players in a game are reasonable, the (apparently) rational choice will be to go for a Nash equilibrium (why would you want to make a choice you'll regret when you know what the other player chose?) And since John Nash (remember that movie A Beautiful Mind?) proved that every game has at least one, all games between well-informed rationalists (who are not also being superrational in a sense to be discussed later) should end in one of these.
What if the game seems specifically designed to thwart Nash equilibria? Suppose you are a general invading an enemy country's heartland. You can attack one of two targets, East City or West City (you declared war on them because you were offended by their uncreative toponyms). The enemy general only has enough troops to defend one of the two cities. If you attack an undefended city, you can capture it easily, but if you attack the city with the enemy army, they will successfully fight you off.
Here there is no Nash equilibrium without introducing randomness. If both you and your enemy choose to go to East City, you will regret your choice - you should have gone to West and taken it undefended. If you go to East and he goes to West, he will regret his choice - he should have gone East and stopped you in your tracks. Reverse the names, and the same is true of the branches where you go to West City. So every option has someone regretting their choice, and there is no simple Nash equilibrium. What do you do?
Here the answer should be obvious: it doesn't matter. Flip a coin. If you flip a coin, and your opponent flips a coin, neither of you will regret your choice. Here we see a "mixed Nash equilibrium", an equilibrium reached with the help of randomness.
We can formalize this further. Suppose you are attacking a different country with two new potential targets: Metropolis and Podunk. Metropolis is a rich and strategically important city (utility: 10); Podunk is an out of the way hamlet barely worth the trouble of capturing it (utility: 1).
A so-called first-level player thinks: “Well, Metropolis is a better prize, so I might as well attack that one. That way, if I win I get 10 utility instead of 1”
A second-level player thinks: “Obviously Metropolis is a better prize, so my enemy expects me to attack that one. So if I attack Podunk, he'll never see it coming and I can take the city undefended.”
A third-level player thinks: “Obviously Metropolis is a better prize, so anyone clever would never do something as obvious as attack there. They'd attack Podunk instead. But my opponent knows that, so, seeking to stay one step ahead of me, he has defended Podunk. He will never expect me to attack Metropolis, because that would be too obvious. Therefore, the city will actually be undefended, so I should take Metropolis.”
And so on ad infinitum, until you become hopelessly confused and have no choice but to spend years developing a resistance to iocane powder.
But surprisingly, there is a single best solution to this problem, even if you are playing against an opponent who, like Professor Quirrell, plays “one level higher than you.”
When the two cities were equally valuable, we solved our problem by flipping a coin. That won't be the best choice this time. Suppose we flipped a coin and attacked Metropolis when we got heads, and Podunk when we got tails. Since my opponent can predict my strategy, he would defend Metropolis every time; I am equally likely to attack Podunk and Metropolis, but taking Metropolis would cost them much more utility. My total expected utility from flipping the coin is 0.5: half the time I successfully take Podunk and gain 1 utility, and half the time I am defeated at Metropolis and gain 0.And this is not a Nash equilibrium: if I had known my opponent's strategy was to defend Metropolis every time, I would have skipped the coin flip and gone straight for Podunk.
So how can I find a Nash equilibrium? In a Nash equilibrium, I don't regret my strategy when I learn my opponent's action. If I can come up with a strategy that pays exactly the same utility whether my opponent defends Podunk or Metropolis, it will have this useful property. We'll start by supposing I am flipping a biased coin that lands on Metropolis x percent of the time, and therefore on Podunk (1-x) percent of the time. To be truly indifferent which city my opponent defends, 10x (the utility my strategy earns when my opponent leaves Metropolis undefended) should equal 1(1-x) (the utility my strategy earns when my opponent leaves Podunk undefended). Some quick algebra finds that 10x = 1(1-x) is satisfied by x = 1/11. So I should attack Metropolis 1/11 of the time and Podunk 10/11 of the time.
My opponent, going through a similar process, comes up with the suspiciously similar result that he should defend Metropolis 10/11 of the time, and Podunk 1/11 of the time.
If we both pursue our chosen strategies, I gain an average 0.9090... utility each round, soundly beating my previous record of 0.5, and my opponent suspiciously loses an average -.9090 utility. It turns out there is no other strategy I can use to consistently do better than this when my opponent is playing optimally, and that even if I knew my opponent's strategy I would not be able to come up with a better strategy to beat it. It also turns out that there is no other strategy my opponent can use to consistently do better than this if I am playing optimally, and that my opponent, upon learning my strategy, doesn't regret his strategy either.
In The Art of Strategy, Dixit and Nalebuff cite a real-life application of the same principle in, of all things, penalty kicks in soccer. A right-footed kicker has a better chance of success if he kicks to the right, but a smart goalie can predict that and will defend to the right; a player expecting this can accept a less spectacular kick to the left if he thinks the left will be undefended, but a very smart goalie can predict this too, and so on. Economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta laboriously analyzed the success rates of various kickers and goalies on the field, and found that they actually pursued a mixed strategy generally within 2% of the game theoretic ideal, proving that people are pretty good at doing these kinds of calculations unconsciously.
So every game really does have at least one Nash equilibrium, even if it's only a mixed strategy. But some games can have many, many more. Recall the situation between me and my girlfriend:
There are two Nash equilibria: both of us working late, and both of us going home. If there were only one equilibrium, and we were both confident in each other's rationality, we could choose that one and there would be no further problem. But in fact this game does present a problem: intuitively it seems like we might still make a mistake and end up in different places.
Here we might be tempted to just leave it to chance; after all, there's a 50% probability we'll both end up choosing the same activity. But other games might have thousands or millions of possible equilibria and so will require a more refined approach.
Art of Strategy describes a game show in which two strangers were separately taken to random places in New York and promised a prize if they could successfully meet up; they had no communication with one another and no clues about how such a meeting was to take place. Here there are a nearly infinite number of possible choices: they could both meet at the corner of First Street and First Avenue at 1 PM, they could both meet at First Street and Second Avenue at 1:05 PM, etc. Since neither party would regret their actions (if I went to First and First at 1 and found you there, I would be thrilled) these are all Nash equilibria.
Despite this mind-boggling array of possibilities, in fact all six episodes of this particular game ended with the two contestants meeting successfully after only a few days. The most popular meeting site was the Empire State Building at noon.
How did they do it? The world-famous Empire State Building is what game theorists call focal: it stands out as a natural and obvious target for coordination. Likewise noon, classically considered the very middle of the day, is a focal point in time. These focal points, also called Schelling points after theorist Thomas Schelling who discovered them, provide an obvious target for coordination attempts.
What makes a Schelling point? The most important factor is that it be special. The Empire State Building, depending on when the show took place, may have been the tallest building in New York; noon is the only time that fits the criteria of “exactly in the middle of the day”, except maybe midnight when people would be expected to be too sleepy to meet up properly.
Of course, specialness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. David Friedman writes:
Two people are separately confronted with the list of numbers [2, 5, 9, 25, 69, 73, 82, 96, 100, 126, 150 ] and offered a reward if they independently choose the same number. If the two are mathematicians, it is likely that they will both choose 2—the only even prime. Non-mathematicians are likely to choose 100—a number which seems, to the mathematicians, no more unique than the other two exact squares. Illiterates might agree on 69, because of its peculiar symmetry—as would, for a different reason, those whose interest in numbers is more prurient than mathematical.
A recent open thread comment pointed out that you can justify anything with “for decision-theoretic reasons” or “due to meta-level concerns”. I humbly propose adding “as a Schelling point” to this list, except that the list is tongue-in-cheek and Schelling points really do explain almost everything - stock markets, national borders, marriages, private property, religions, fashion, political parties, peace treaties, social networks, software platforms and languages all involve or are based upon Schelling points. In fact, whenever something has “symbolic value” a Schelling point is likely to be involved in some way. I hope to expand on this point a bit more later.
Sequential games can include one more method of choosing between Nash equilibria: the idea of a subgame-perfect equilibrium, a special kind of Nash equlibrium that remains a Nash equilibrium for every subgame of the original game. In more intuitive terms, this equilibrium means that even in a long multiple-move game no one at any point makes a decision that goes against their best interests (remember the example from the last post, where we crossed out the branches in which Clinton made implausible choices that failed to maximize his utility?) Some games have multiple Nash equilibria but only one subgame-perfect one; we'll examine this idea further when we get to the iterated prisoners' dilemma and ultimatum game.
In conclusion, every game has at least one Nash equilibrium, a point at which neither player regrets her strategy even when she knows the other player's strategy. Some equilibria are simple choices, others involve plans to make choices randomly according to certain criteria. Purely rational players will always end up at a Nash equilibrium, but many games will have multiple possible equilibria. If players are trying to coordinate, they may land at a Schelling point, an equilibria which stands out as special in some way.
This sequence of posts is a primer on game theory intended at an introductory level. Because it is introductory, Less Wrong veterans may find some parts boring, obvious, or simplistic - although hopefully nothing is so simplistic as to be outright wrong.
Parts of this sequence draw heavily upon material from The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff, and it may in part be considered a (very favorable) review of the book accompanied by an exploration of its content. I have tried to include enough material to be useful, but not so much material that it becomes a plagiarism rather than a review (it's probably a bad idea to pick a legal fight with people who write books called The Art of Strategy.) Therefore, for the most complete and engaging presentation of this material, I highly recommend the original book.
All posts will be linked from here as they go up:
1. Introduction to Game Theory: Sequence Guide
2. Backward Reasoning Over Decision Trees
3. Nash Equilibria and Schelling Points
4. Introduction to Prisoners' Dilemma
5. Real World Solutions to Prisoners' Dilemmas
6. Interlude for Behavioral Economics
7. What Is Signaling, Really?
8. Bargaining and Auctions
9. Imperfect Voting Systems
10. Game Theory As A Dark Art
Special thanks to Luke for his book recommendation and his strong encouragement to write this.
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