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The Survival Game: How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation and Competition

The Survival Game: How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation and Competition

by David P. Barash

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From a zoologist and psychologist, an astonishing look at the biological and strategic roots of human decisions

Humans, like bacteria, woodchucks, chimpanzees, and other animals, compete or cooperate in order to get food, shelter, territory, and other resources to survive. But how do they decide whether to muscle out or team up with the competition?


From a zoologist and psychologist, an astonishing look at the biological and strategic roots of human decisions

Humans, like bacteria, woodchucks, chimpanzees, and other animals, compete or cooperate in order to get food, shelter, territory, and other resources to survive. But how do they decide whether to muscle out or team up with the competition?

In The Survival Game, David P. Barash synthesizes the newest ideas from psychology, economics, and biology to explore and explain the roots of human strategy. Drawing on game theory-the study of how individuals make decisions-he explores the give-and-take of spouses in determining an evening's plans, the behavior of investors in a market bubble, and the maneuvers of generals on a battlefield alongside the mating and fighting strategies of "less rational" animals. Ultimately, Barash's lively and clear examples shed light on what makes our decisions human, and what we can glean from game theory and the natural world as we negotiate and compete every day.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Game theory attempts to explain the dynamics of life as a series of individual games, each involving specific moves that take place within a strictly delineated set of rules. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a brilliant tool for analyzing the complexities of social life or hopelessly reductionist. Zoologist and professor of psychology Barash (coauthor of The Myth of Monogamy), who emphatically falls into the former camp, proves an apt popularizer of the basics of the field, and his book reads like an introductory seminar led by a friendly professor with a slightly corny sense of humor. Readers who have never heard of the Prisoner's Dilemma or the Game of Chicken will find Barash's explanations accessible, while those who are already familiar with the basics of game theory can appreciate the wealth of historical, biological and hypothetical cases to which he applies its methods, ranging from the Bush administration's foreign policy in the spring of 2003 to the behavior of sponge-dwelling isopods in the Gulf of California. Though persuasive, game theory as laid out here and in other works (the best known being Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene) can often seem harshly rational in its cold calculations of life and death, and Barash himself writes in his conclusion, "[F]or a long time I have really loved game theory, and, for about as long, I've hated it." By the end of this highly readable introduction, readers will understand quite well what he means. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“Barash combines game theory with evolutionary biology, arguing that the strategic choices people make as they go through life [are] encoded in their brains by millions of years of evolution . . . His examples-including farm economics, jungle mating strategies and World War II battlefields-are convincing.” —The Washington Post

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The Survival Game

How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation and Competition

By David P. Barash

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2003 David P. Barash
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3256-1


The Games We All Play: What They Are, Why They Matter

In Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain is astonished to learn that all of his life, without knowing it, he has been speaking prose. We are a bit like M. Jourdain: without knowing it, we all play games. It is not necessary to be athletic, or competitive, or especially frolicsome. Game playing is a big part of life. And since we are full-time players, it behooves us to understand what's going on.

Here goes.

What's the Big Idea?

Most of us assume that life is straightforward, essentially under our own control. If we want something, and reach for it, we may succeed or fail. Either way, the outcome is widely thought to result from our actions alone. But in fact, what we get is often determined by factors out of our control: Maybe the object we are reaching for is too heavy, or too far away, or guarded by angry dragons.

For our purposes, there is a whole class of situations that are more complex and more interesting than these, circumstances in which the payoff — the gain we are seeking — is limited by the fact that others are also reaching for the same goal. In cases of this sort, as the Rolling Stones proclaimed in a notable song several decades ago, you can't always get what you want. Why not? Because if someone else wants the same thing, and if he or she is pretty much as smart, fast, strong, and motivated as you, then something's got to give. (Whether, in the end, you can get "what you need," as the Stones also announced, is another question, and one that is even more complicated.)

Actually, games arise even if the players aren't human beings. Animals also play games, whether they know it or not, just as people do — whether they know it or not. Thus, two bull elk may desire the same cow, with the success of each ultimately depending not just on what male number one does, but also on male number two. And, of course, the female is also likely to have something to say about the outcome. Whether people or animals (or even viruses), the important thing is that there is some sort of outcome, which is determined by the combined actions of two or more different players, whether their interests are shared, opposed, or — most commonly — a little bit of each.

Let's get a bit more technical, but not much. There are many circumstances in which the interests of individuals are interdependent and yet in conflict, so that the payoff to individual A, who is pursuing a particular goal, depends on the actions of individual B, who may be pursuing the same goal. In these cases, the return to each player — which can be a person, animal, organization, country, or even a bacterium — is determined by the actions of both, taken together. Furthermore, each is in a sense at the mercy of the other, in two ways. First, the outcome to each party depends on the other's actions, and second, it is often the case that neither can change the other's behavior. It is one of life's crucial constraints.

There are many variants on this theme. Consider, for example, one of the simplest: call it the Interrupted Telephone Call Game, a frustration that everyone has experienced. You are talking to a friend, long distance, and suddenly the conversation is cut off; you both get a dial tone. You want to resume talking, and so does your friend, but if you both dial up the other, neither one will get through! If you both wait, again you both lose. The only way to "win" is for one (either one) to redial and the other to wait. So this is a case in which the interests of both parties converge, and yet the payoff to each still depends on the independent behavior of the other.

Another way to put it: What is the best thing to do when confronted with the Interrupted Telephone Call Game? There is no simple answer here, since it depends on what the other person does. If she is going to call you, then you should wait. If she is going to wait, then you should call. Things get interesting when — as is usually the case — the two of you haven't agreed in advance who will do what if your call is interrupted.

Although this is admittedly a trivial case, it points out something important about interactions of this sort: Two or more parties may each have a limited number of possible "moves" — in this case, you and your friend can either "dial" or "wait" — with the payoff to each of you depending not just on what either of you do, but on what the other does at the same time. Moreover, neither can control the actions of the other. A poignant literary example comes from O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi," in which the young husband sells his cherished pocket watch in order to buy hair combs for his adored wife, who — independently — has sold her precious and much-admired hair to buy a watch chain for him!

In some of the most interesting situations we'll be examining, the "players" are more competitive, if not overtly antagonistic. In such cases, each participant is typically trying to maximize his payoff while often simultaneously attempting to minimize the other's return. (And each also knows that the other is trying to achieve the same thing: "She knows that I'm trying to seem smarter than her, so she'll probably study this other case carefully, to get a jump, so I'll review this counter-example, to get ahead of her....") Interestingly, although experts in game theory typically assume this sort of conscious planning and counter-planning, it isn't strictly necessary. A gazelle "knows" that the cheetah is planning to catch it, and the cheetah "knows" that the gazelle "knows" this, and so forth. In this case, the "knowledge" is implanted by evolution rather than by conscious awareness, but nonetheless, the game goes on.

Competitive interactions of this sort, whether human or "merely" biological, are not only intriguing as intellectual exercises, but they can yield tremendous insight into important real-life dilemmas, whether interpersonal or involving whole societies. In other cases, two individuals — or companies, or countries — find themselves locked in a deeply frustrating dilemma, in which both "players" strive for their own best interest, but, as a result, both are worse off. This is not simply theory but, rather, painful and dangerous practice.

Take, for example, nuclear weapons in Pakistan and India. Each country is tempted by the prospect of gaining a nuclear advantage over the other; at the same time, each would be better off using its limited budget to enhance the welfare of its own impoverished people. But each country is also fearful of being taken advantage of by the other if it lets down its guard and forgoes nuclear weapons. And so, two countries that can ill afford such a dangerous and expensive competition find themselves locked in a nuclear arms race that does neither one any good ... and that, moreover, does harm to their own security and that of the rest of the world. Everyone would be better off if these two "players" would only "do the right thing" and stop their nuclear competition, but because each fears being suckered by the other, both see themselves as doomed to keep it up. As we'll see, arms races of this sort also occur between married couples, parents and children, and so on.

Once again, the biological world fits right in, although such "natural" arms races are less potentially lethal than their nuclear counterparts. Pity the poor peacock, for example, forced to grow a set of outlandish and metabolically expensive tail feathers, which threaten to get tangled in the undergrowth and serve no real purpose other than convincing the female that its possessor is better than his rivals. After all, if a particular peacock decided not to run this tail-feather race, such a presumably "rational" decision would place him at a disadvantage relative to the other males who decided to participate, and who, as a result, got the peahen.

Even trees are victims. Given that successful reproduction is the biological bottom line, why should redwoods grow so tall? After all, you don't have to be two hundred feet in height, and bother piling up hundreds of tons of wood, just to make some tiny seeds. But a redwood tree that opted out of the big-and-tall competitive fray would literally wither in the shade produced by other trees that were just a bit less restrained. And so, redwoods are doomed by their own unconscious selfishness to be "irrationally" large, for no particular reason other than the fact that other redwoods are doing the same thing.

Then there is the "politician's dilemma" of whether or not to "go negative." By doing so, someone running for public office doesn't merely have to invest in dead wood; he or she also loses respect and society loses the opportunity to debate genuine issues. But political rivals, not unlike aspiring redwood trees, often find themselves stuck in an awkward competitive game, in which they typically fear being suckered by their opponent (victimized this time by shady, negative campaign tactics), as well as tempted to reap the benefits of attacking successfully and unilaterally. Or like two contestants in a particularly grueling tug-of-war, each side may long to ease up, but fears that the other will take advantage, so both sides end up holding tight, straining mightily ... and often getting nowhere. Not uncommonly, the two players come out somewhat behind, the only winners in the world of electoral politics being the consultants, the speechwriters, and the media.

Don't miss the forest for the trees (and not only redwoods). There are some shared threads linking situations of this sort, from gargantuan redwoods, horny peacocks and elk, to interrupted telephone calls, negative political ads, and dilemmas of disarmament. In all these cases, two sides, or players, each have goals or potential payoffs they wish to attain. They each have a limited palette of options, things they can do in pursuit of their goals; in the simplest case, just two (grow big — or fancy — or not, dial or wait, arm or disarm, go negative or stay positive). And although each is free to choose what to do, no one is free to obtain the desired payoff simply by reaching for it. In each case it depends on what the other guy does. Get used to it: you can't always get what you want. Especially if someone else's desires interfere with your own.

There is a complex branch of mathematics that handles such situations. Known as game theory, it has been around for about sixty years. Although it has generated hundreds of scholarly articles (and several technical journals devoted entirely to its analysis) as well as many academic books, game theory has never truly reached the general public. This is a shame, because it offers many rewards. As I hope to show, it provides a novel and intellectually compelling way of looking at everyday phenomena. And the fact that the same principles apply to the unthinking, biological world suggests that game theory itself may be in touch with some deeper truths: not a "theory of everything," as some physicists have been pursuing, but at least a theory of many interesting things. In addition, I believe that its essence can be conveyed without elaborate mathematics. In fact, I hereby promise to make this book an equation-free zone. Game theory and its implications are simply too important — and too much fun! — to be left to the mathematicians. Our games, our selves.

Games are also too dangerous to be ignored. Consider the Game of Chicken, a version of which was memorably portrayed in the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. In classic Games of Chicken, two cars head toward each other, each daring the other to swerve. The one who chickens out is the loser; the one who is so brave, or so stupid, as to persevere in going straight is the winner. (In the movie version, Dean and his rival each drove toward a cliff, seeking to be the last to bail out; the basic principle remains the same.)

A Game of Chicken is similar to a nuclear confrontation in that each player can either insist on pushing straight ahead ("arm") or swerve ("disarm"). Moreover, each would get the highest payoff by doing the former if at the same time the other did the latter. On the other hand, the Game of Chicken differs from an arms race in one crucial respect. The worst outcome for either player in the latter case arises if its side acted cooperatively while the other acted competitively; by contrast, the worst outcome in the Game of Chicken occurs when both players act competitively (each hoping that the other will "swerve"). The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was a terrifying example of international Chicken, in which the Soviet Union swerved ... thereby avoiding fried chicken. There are many situations in daily life — issuing "take it or leave it" ultimatums, for example — when we engage in lower-risk Games of Chicken, usually without realizing it.

Biologists have begun to identify "game theoretic" strategies by which animals — and not just genuine chickens — play, quite seriously, at survival, at bluffing, and in reproductive roles. Of course, they don't need to know, consciously, that they are playing such games, any more than they need to understand the details of digestive physiology in order to eat.

Take this example. A male bluebird must "decide" between two options: He can remain with his sexually receptive mate, or wander off in search of additional female companions. He cannot do both, just as individuals playing the Game of Chicken cannot both go straight and swerve, or two countries caught in a nuclear arms race cannot both arm and disarm. Similarly, the male bluebird's payoff depends on what others are doing: If most other males are staying home, he may do well by looking for additional sexual opportunities, because there is at least the chance that some females will be left unguarded, and little risk in trying. But if too many other males are also looking to sow their wild bluebird oats, then a gallivanting male runs the risk that while he is out seeking copulations, another male — doing the same as himself — will succeed in copulating with his female! The apparent result, understood via game theory, is that individuals are likely to be either homebodies or sexual adventurers, in predictable proportions, depending on the risks, the payoffs, and what others in the population are up to.

Ironically, game theory may even apply more directly to the interactions of animals than of people, despite the fact that animals are by all accounts less rational than human beings. This is because animals are more driven by automatic processes, the results of natural selection having endowed animals with automatic responses that have largely proven, over many generations, to be fitness-enhancing and, thus, mathematically valid. By contrast, human beings are less automatic and, thus, less logically predictable. Here is yet another fundamental paradox, at the heart of all behavior, human and nonhuman alike.

This is but scratching the surface. Game theory is loaded with implications for a wide range of human activities; it offers intriguing mental exercise plus the insight that comes from seeing old problems in new ways. By examining interactions and the striving for payoffs in a "gamey" way, it is possible to shed new light on many other situations, including military strategy, stock market investing (buying a stock is a good strategy if and only if others will also buy it; you can't make money on Wall Street based on what you do alone), as well as moral decision making. And lots more.

We'll also use game theory as a lens to focus on interactions between individuals as well as organizations. Again, the underlying commonality is simply this: what one "player" gets isn't determined simply by what he, or she, or it does, but also by the other "player," who is no less smart, no more ethical, and every bit as motivated to succeed. Imagine this: You are accosted by your neighbor, because one of your trees fell down on her prize rosebush. She threatens to sue, yet both of you would rather settle out of court. She would like to get as much money as possible; you would like to give up as little as you can get away with. She must decide whether to demand a large amount of money, or a smaller amount. Independently, you must decide whether to agree or take it to your insurance company and, possibly, small claims court ... which would be expensive and time-consuming for all concerned.


Excerpted from The Survival Game by David P. Barash. Copyright © 2003 David P. Barash. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, zoologist David P. Barash is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Myth of Monogamy and The Mammal in the Mirror. He lives in Redmond, Washington.

David P. Barash holds a Ph.D. in zoology and is currently professor of psychology at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has written more than a dozen books, including Making Sense of Sex with Judith Lipton, Ideas of Human Nature, and The Mammal in the Mirror, as well as popular articles in Playboy, Psychology Today, and the New York Times.

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