Pointers needed! Game theory plus … what?

So … here’s my problem … and I need some help …

First, the background. Last week I attended a Maths Challenge certificate ceremony at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, during which I had the enjoyable experience of hearing a lecture on game theory. As part of the lecture, we all pondered again the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and why it was always statistically better to cheat or betray to gain an advantage in a game. (If you don’t know the Prisoner’s Dilemma, read about it here; in fact, the rest of my own Dilemma won’t make sense unless you do.) Now, obviously at least one of the prisoners is still worse off if there is some betrayal than if neither prisoner betrays, but game theory explains, through an analysis of the statistical probabilities, why behaving in what the outside world might see as a less honourable way is often the ‘safest’ route for game players to take.

To be honest, at the time I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, and filed it (probably rather naively) into my ‘fictional world’ or ‘suspension of disbelief’ folder – an interesting question about amorality in the virtual world, but one which could be explored at a different time, and which might not in any case transfer to the real world. Then, however, on Monday, I realised suddenly that we need to take this a lot more seriously than I had thought. I was listening to a very different lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, following a board meeting, this time given by Tom Steyr, billionaire-turned-grass-roots-activist and arch-critic of the current political structure of the US, and he pointed out that in his opinion the behaviour of the current US President was a sign that he was trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, choosing to cheat and betray his way out of situations because on balance, this made it more likely that he would win. This really, really made me think … I wonder how much of our culture is permeated by people consciously (or subconsciously, through imitation of others) employing the learnings from game theory. A simple Google search reveals hundreds of thousands of reflection and scholarly articles on the impact of game theory on war, politics and international relations. And my question is this – are we really turning into a society where cheating is the de facto modus operandi?

Well, I refuse to accept that this is either desirable or necessary – every ethical bone in my body screams otherwise – but what I could do with is some input from experts (amateur or professional) in game theory which will help me (all of us) understand game theory in practice in real life … Is there an equation out there that incorporates the multiple, layered and complex variables that actually influence how we can and should choose to behave in the kind of civilised society to which we aspire?

I’d love any pointers – links, thoughts or theories – that any of you might have … please, just get in touch. Where shall I start reading? In the meantime, I shall be busy resurrecting my school Scottish Higher Grade Mathematics in my spare time …

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