Game Theory, Shmame Theory: Let’s Find a New Name That Doesn’t Put People Off

"Game Theory" needs a new name. Can you help?

Posted Jan 27, 2010

Game theory is about the strategies that we use every day in our interactions with other people. It analyses the consequences of those strategies, exposes the traps that we can get ourselves into, and suggests ways that we can escape from those traps. It is a terribly important adjunct to psychology, yet few people realize its power and usefulness.

I think that part of the problem lies in the name, which describes how it analyzes human interactions as games that we play. Unfortunately, the name suggests to many people that it’s just about games, and that it is no more than a theory.

In fact, “game theory” is about very real personal issues. It encompasses family problems and neighbourhood disputes, and also extends to international relations and global cooperation. It’s time for a new name that reflects its value and significance for human relations. Can you help?

The waters have been muddied by Eric Berne’s use of something similar as the title of Games People Play, published in 1964. Berne doesn’t mention the actual discipline of game theory, although it had been invented and named some twenty years earlier by the Hungarian/American polymath John von Neumann and his collaborator Oskar Morgenstern in The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

One can’t really blame Berne for ignoring the earlier book, which is frankly off-putting for non-mathematicians, although one of its phrases (“zero-sum game”) has found its way into our popular language. Both the title and the mathematics helped to conceal its deep relevance for psychologists and others interested in how we interact with each other.

Game theory achieves its results by assuming that we act so as to maximize the reward to ourselves as individuals. Recent results from experimental psychology have shown that this can be an over-simplistic approach, with factors such as altruism and bloody-mindedness also coming into play, but these results do not negate the essential truths and paradoxes that have been exposed by game theory. It is these that need to be encapsulated in a new name.

An ideal name should imply that:

  • It is about the real-life strategies that we use as individuals in our dealings with other people.
  • Our strategies can often lead to counter-intuitive consequences, where the logic of self-interest lands us in a position where self-interest is the last thing that is being served.
  • These counter-intuitive consequences are a result of a genuine logical paradox that is implicit in the use of self-interest to guide our actions.
  • We are nevertheless stuck with self-interest as our guiding principle in the majority of cases.

In Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life I elaborate on how this vicious circle of logic affects us in our daily lives. I was forced to use the words “game theory” for want of a better alternative. An alternative, though, is crying out to be invented. Can you help?


Len Fisher