Why Simple Models never Imply Simple Policies: Game Theory and the Paris Attacks

After the news hit me that France retaliated the recent terrorist attacks by bombing Syria, I was reminded of a course about game theory I took not even one week after 9/11. The course was taught by a leading political science game theorist. Naturally, sooner or later the discussion gravitated towards recent events. Being a game theorist he couched his answer into a game theoretical situation, the chainstore paradox. In his eyes, the more powerful agent (USA) needed to assert his dominance and credibility by immediate and strong action. This would deter future acts of violence.

I was flabbergasted. This answer flew in the face of my basic psychological intuition that ‘violence begets violence’. You might deter some rationally-forward looking agents who care about a worldly political project. But if matters of hatred, grievance, honour, and eternally glory are at stake, indiscriminately bombing people only makes terrorists stronger. There are numerous examples to back this, just think about the coup that brought down Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and which eventually ushered in the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This makes me wonder about the role of social science expertise in understanding the world. It is a worthwhile endeavour, as long as you don’t fall into the trap of believing it uncritically. Game theory is particularly persuasive: simple, lean, and for some nerds like me even aesthetically pleasing. But don’t exaggerate its powers. John Ruggie once mentioned another game theoretic situation, the stag hunt, a classic cooperation dilemma. The idea of this game is that only cooperation leads to an optimal beneficial outcome, but that incentives poise two hunters to defect from cooperation. The result is that both end up with less meat on the table. After the hunt the two hunters part ways, and they never meet again. Ruggie asked where these two hunters would go afterwards. Wouldn’t they meet again and feel sorry about their lack of cooperation?

In many real life situations the social and psychic fabric of human interaction is much more complex than a game theoretical constellation. Games can shed light on interesting aspects of the story, but they also necessarily neglect other aspects. This is why simple models almost never imply simple policy recommendations.


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