Samson, Delilah, and Game Theory

Question: What is game theory?

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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.

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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.

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Question: What’s an example of biblical characters acting rationally according to game theory?

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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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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

The "Biblical Games" author and game theorist demonstrates how biblical characters are "by and large rational, God included."

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...

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

Image: Abel Suyok
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  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
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