How Game Theory Can Help You Do a Better Job of Parenting

In 1944, the economist, physicist, mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann published a book that became a sensation, at least among mathematicians – Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Written with a colleague, Oskar Morgenstern, this volume of nearly biblical proportions is so dense and littered with mathematics that only a game-theory specialist could understand it – and some of them struggled.


Even so, game theory has spread far beyond the boundaries of mathematics to become a valuable tool for explaining human behaviour. It’s used by diplomats, biologists, psychologists, economists and many others in business, research and global politics.

Game theory can also be a useful tool for parents. Children can be tough negotiators, as parents know. And the stakes are high: the outcome of negotiations between parents and their children can affect a family’s happiness and the children’s futures.

Despite its sometimes complicated mathematics, game theory is simple to explain: it’s the science of strategic thinking. Game theory does not cover all games, but only those in which an opponent’s or negotiator’s strategy affects your next move. It has nothing to do with solitaire, in which your ‘opponent’ – a deck of cards – has no strategy. Chess, on the other hand, is a beautiful example of a game-theory game, where two crafty strategists are continually trying to anticipate and block the other’s likely moves. 

Encouraging cooperation between children is a wonderful game-theory example. Some years ago, Robert Axelrod, a game theorist at the University of Michigan, asked the following question: when should a person cooperate, and when should a person be selfish, in an ongoing interaction with another? He set up a computer competition among game theorists, and he was astonished at what he found. The most sophisticated solutions failed to beat something called tit-for-tat, in which each player responds by doing what the other did. If the first cooperates, so does the second. And so on and so forth. If the first does not cooperate, neither does the second.

Auctions are yet another subject of game-theory research, and useful for parents. Suppose your children all want to control the TV remote. Set up what’s known as a sealed-bid, second-price auction. Each secretly writes down what he or she is willing to pay. When the papers are opened, the highest bidder wins the right to buy the remote at $1 plus the second-highest bid. It’s far superior to a coin flip because the person who most wanted the remote got it.

Game-theory deals depend upon fairness and, often, so do dealings between parents and children. Children are consumed with the idea of fairness. If a candy bar meant to be shared by two isn’t broken exactly in half, the one who gets the smaller piece will howl. Game theory offers parents a way around this.

Suppose you break the candy bar into two pieces that are almost the same size, but not quite. And your children can see that they are different. You could do something that seems eminently fair: toss a coin. Your children can recognise the fairness in tossing a coin; nobody controls the outcome. What could be simpler? You toss the coin into the air. The winner gets the slightly bigger piece of candy; the loser gets the other. But something changes when the coin hits the floor. The winner now believes the decision was completely fair; the loser demands that he get a do-over. To him, it doesn’t seem fair at all.

The problem here turns on the meaning of fairness. The coin toss is fair, as we usually understand that. So what is the problem? In game-theory terms, the outcome was not envy-free. The loser desperately envies the winner. It’s not a very satisfactory solution for you or for one of your two children.

Here’s a way to get a much better outcome. Suppose you have the remains of a birthday cake you want to divide between your two children. You have the same problem as you did with the candy: it’s difficult to cut two equal pieces. So you turn to the technique we call ‘I Cut, You Pick’: your daughter cuts the cake, and your son picks the half he wants.

Your daughter will be as careful as possible to cut the cake into identical halves, because if she doesn’t, she will get the smaller one. Because it might not be possible to cut the cake into two exact halves, you designate your son to make the cut the next time you have cake. And you continue to take turns. This is fair, and game theory shows that people will recognise it to be fair. It’s far superior to the brutal coin toss.

Now let’s make it a bit more difficult. The cake is half chocolate and half vanilla. Your son loves chocolate; your daughter prefers vanilla. If your daughter cuts the cake in a way that gives each of them half of the chocolate and half of the vanilla, the cut is fair. Each piece is the same size. But neither child is entirely happy, because each got some cake they didn’t want. Turn the cut the other way – and divide it into a chocolate half for your son and a vanilla half for your daughter, and both are far happier. Both cuts were fair, but the cut into chocolate and vanilla halves demonstrated what’s called Pareto optimality. Each was not only fairly treated, but also got the best possible outcome.

Game theory can also be used to help the family to decide where to go on vacation, what to have for dinner, how siblings can learn to cooperate without mum or dad’s intervention – and many other problems that routinely turn up in the family.

Game theory is a gift of evolution, which sculpted us to behave according to precise and illuminating mathematical rules. We use it all the time. Game-theory parenting is a way to help parents explicitly understand the rules and reflect on what the rules say about raising healthy and successful children. An understanding of game theory helps us become the parents we were meant to be. Parents and children might not be able to make their way through von Neumann’s often opaque book, but they don’t have to. They are all game theorists already. All they need are a few good rules. And that’s what game theory provides.

Paul Raeburn

--

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

Videos
  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
  • We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
  • With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
Keep reading Show less