Game theory is all around us. Despite its innocuous-sounding name, it is not just a theory, and it deals with far more than traditional games. It is, in fact, about the real-life strategies that we use in our interactions with other people. Originally proposed by John von Neumann in the late 1940s, it provides a mathematical analysis of those strategies. His analysis exposed a critical flaw in them – a logical paradox which means that when we attempt (perfectly reasonably) to pursue our own self-interest in a group environment (by cooperating or following our own path, depending on circumstances), self-interest often ends up as the last thing that is being served.
The paradox goes under various names – The Prisoner’s Dilemma is one, The Tragedy of the Commons is another. It underlies the confrontations, broken promises and just plain cheating that we so often see in domestic quarrels, neighbourhood arguments, industrial disputes and celebrity divorce cases, not to mention overpopulation, resource depletion, global warming, international disputes, and even war. It is the most serious problem that we face in our attempts to cooperate.
The universality of the paradox was exposed by John Nash (https://lenfisherscience.com/60-what-is-the-nash-equilibrium-why-does-it-matter/), but the name “game theory” to explain their underlying mathematical structure misleads many people, and simply doesn’t do justice to their importance and relevance. But even though I’ve written a book about it (https://lenfisherscience.com/books/rock-paper-scissors-game-theory-in-everyday-life/), and considered the problem at length, I haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory alternative name – one that screams about its importance in our lives, and announces to the world just what it is all about.