Steven Brams is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He graduated in 1962 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his Ph.D. in 1966 from Northwestern. His primary research interests include game theory and its applications, particularly in political science and international relations, and social choice theory, particularly as applied to voting and elections. He is one of the independent discoverers of approval voting and a co-discoverer of the first envy-free solution to the n-person cake cutting problem. Brams was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1986 to 1987 and is a member of the American Association for Advancement of Science.
Question: What is game theory?
Steven Brams: Sure. Game theory is a strategic theory in which there are generally two or more players, so-called, or actors. And the outcome of their game depends on the choices of all the players. So, it’s an interdependent decision situation. And the mathematical theory was developed going back to the 1920’s, but primarily in a book by John Von Neumann, the great mathematician, and Oskar Morgenstern, an economist, who were both at Princeton, called "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior." This book was published in 1944, and that really started the subject of “game theory.” And it’s been applied in numerous areas. I am a political scientist, so it’s been applied to the study of voting and elections to international politics. It’s probably most prominent in economics; most of economics is now written in “game theory” terms, especially micro-economics, but macro-economics, international economics as well. It’s been applied to biology, evolutionary biology, the evolution of species, their conflicts.
For example, in my work I’ve applied it to text, including the Bible. I’ve looked at the Hebrew Bible and the 20 stories of conflict and intrigue that I thought were most game-like, and starting with Adam and Eve and going through most of the famous stories, and some not so famous. I tried to show with game trees and payoff matrixes that the biblical characters were by and large rational, God included. I made applications in political science and I’ve also done applications to sports; the selection of draft players for example, in the professional sports league. So, those are some examples.
Question: What’s an example of biblical characters acting rationally according to game theory?
Steven Brams: Take the story of Samson and Delilah. In this story, Delilah, a Philistine, tries to get the secret of Samson’s strength; and makes three attempts. Delilah is a woman that Samson loves, he very much dislikes being harassed all the time for the secret of his strength, but he refuses in the first two attempts that Delilah has. Finally he succumbs and he tells the secret of his strength and then bad things happen afterwards. Though, Samson gets his revenge in the end. And I think the interesting question you can ask about this story is; how could somebody like Samson be so stupid as to ignore several warnings?
And my answer is that if you look at Samson’s previous career, he lusted after almost every woman he ever met. Every beautiful woman anyway, and Delilah was the latest. So, you can explain his behavior as rational in terms of this interest in women, allowing him to think that he was taking a risk maybe in telling the secret of his strength, his long hair which, of course, was cut off. But it might not be disastrous.
In the end, it was disastrous. Samson was mutilated, he was treated with derision, but he got his revenge. He was placed between two pillars, his hair had grown back at that time, and he collapsed this big stadium, killing thousands of Philistines.
So, in games, bad things can happen. One can explain this in terms of the rationality of the player’s actions. And I define rationality simply to mean that you make better – you can rank alternatives and you chose the best alternative. But in the game, it’s more complicated because you have to choose the best alternative in light of what the other players may chose and that affects the outcome. But it doesn’t depend on your goals. Whatever your goals, if you do the best to achieve them, I argue you’re being rational. So if somebody desires to commit suicide, and maybe somebody who is in great pain and succeeds in doing so, I consider that behavior rational because this was the goal of the person.
Most of us don’t have the goal of committing suicide. Most of us have other goals; winning in a contest and the like, getting as much profit as we can from an enterprise. But whatever the goals, if you chose the most effective means to achieve them, you’re being rational. That’s, I think, the best way of thinking of rationality. It’s not that the goals are reasonable; it’s that the means to achieve the goals are effective.
Recorded on February 2, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen