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This month, let me take the occasion of the passing of Howard Raiffa to muse a bit about game theory.  He was an absolute leader in the field and one of the first to mathematically lay out the rich tapestry of games that people play.

Specifically, I want to share an article I recently published with the  Journal of Mediation and Applied Conflict Analysis. It takes a playful look at game theory, something that happens all too rarely.

Eric Berne, in his seminal 1964 book “Games People Play”, was perhaps the first to seriously experiment with the idea of modeling human conflict as games.  But his focus was mostly on psychological patterns, especially in family relationships.  Later, more sophisticated work went much further in an all-out effort to quantify all human conflict in mathematical matrices, with great predictive power as to what “rational” players are likely to do to maximize their utility.

More recently,  Nils Halevy has build on some of Howard Raiffa’s seminal work by isolating four archetypes of conflict as Games.  His claim is that almost all human conflict can be reduced to the patterns of the Prisoners Dilemma, Assurance, Maximizing Differences or Chicken Games.  Impressive work.  But what I wonder is what can we do about it?  If we find ourselves trapped in one of these games, why do we have to proceed to a fixed equilibrium?   Are we destined to make the moves that rationality has programmed for us in a closed system, or can we go beyond them?

In essence, how do we strategically change the game we are playing in a negotiation and swap it for another?  In my paper, I explore the potential for doing this first by intervening to alter the specific payouts within a game through various trustbuilding measures and then, more boldly, by stepping out of the game by changing perceptions of payoffs and, finally,  negotiating at a metalevel about the rules of the game itself.  For we can decide what game we choose to play, and so can our partner.

I illustrate all of this in a current political example, and sketch out some particular methods of game change that can be observed in the current rapprochement between the USA and Cuba.

In conclusion, I also ask whether we might find yet newer archetypes of conflict, perhaps one day leaving the 2×2 matrix behind.

Comments Welcome.

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