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Game Theory applies to more than just games. But that implies that those things are just games too. by Ugur Akdemir

Game Theory is the study of how and why people make decisions. It extends from warfare to agriculture. But “game” has a more colloquial term. Urban dictionary defines game as confidently using your skills to seduce women. There is even an entire subreddit devoted to this: /r/seduction. The writer Robert Greene argues that the art of seduction dates as far back as Cleopatra and, in fact, that it was actually women who developed the art.

There are only two ways to get people to do something: inspiration or manipulation. The difference between the two is whose choice matters. In manipulation, the manipulator’s choice determines the outcome, while those who are inspired get to choose. Whether game is an act of manipulation or inspiration, the same rules apply. All games have rules.

Stanley Milgram wanted to test how willing people are to listen to authority if it involved harming another person. He was inspired by the Nazis war criminals who contested that they were just following orders.

Milgram placed volunteers to serve as lab assistants, “teachers”, studying learning. The teacher was instructed to shock “learners” (who were actors) if they could not accurately recite a word pair. Each incorrect answer meant another shock. Each successive shock would be more intense than the last.

There were 30 switches on the shock generator; intensities ranged from 15 volts to 450 volts. The descriptions went from “slight shock” to “XXX”, respectively. The teacher and student communicated through audio. So, the teacher could hear the students yell when they were shocked. They could hear the student’s screams evolve into pleads of mercy as the intensities approached “XXX”.

Teachers would inevitably refuse to continue when the screams were too frightening. Then the experimenters would prod with:

1) “Please continue.”

2) “The experiment requires you to continue.”

3) “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”

4) “You have no other choice but to continue.”

Most teachers that heard the fourth prod still refused, which ended the experiment. Nevertheless, roughly 65% of teachers still managed to reached “XXX”.

Milgram conducted between 20 and 40 variances of this baseline study. The other studies showed that obedience drops to 40% when the teacher could see the student, 30% when the teacher had to hold the hand of the participant, 20% when the experimenter wasn’t wearing a white coat, 10% if there are two or more teachers in the same room that refuse to continue, and there was 0% obedience if there were two disagreeing experimenters overseeing a teacher. In other words, appeal to authority depends on the degree of authority and proximity to the consequences.

Solomon Asch wanted to test the effects of social pressure. So, he placed a single test subject in a room with a group of actors, known as confederates. A majority of the confederates would give the same wrong answer while the remaining confederates would give the correct answer. Asch found that about 40% of the time people will side with the group. Some subjects said it was because they thought the group knew something they didn’t. Others just wanted to fit in. It’s as if the group we are in acts as an authority over our actions.

Philip Zimbardo wanted to test the psychological effects of prison. So, he devised the Stanford Prison experiment. Twenty male volunteers from campus were selected and randomly divided into two groups. One group of guards. One group of prisoners.

Guards were already using their position of power to harass the prisoners within the first few hours. In rebellion to their treatment, the prisoners started working together to make the guards’ lives equally more difficult. By day two, two of the prisoners were sent home because of their declining mental states. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but officially ended after only six days.

The Stanford Prison experiment is often heralded as an example of how heinously humans can treat each other. I would rather acknowledge how quickly humans can unite when facing adversity together. Adversity used to be difficulties like gathering food or fighting a common enemy. Now adversity is passing a test, getting a job, or raising kids.

There are only so many relationships that we can manage in a single day. In fact, there are only so many loving relationships that we can maintain in general. That number happens to be around 150 and it’s known as Dunbar’s number. As Robin Dunbar described it, it is “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” They are your tribe.

Humans historically built tribes through kinship, then proximity. Our social circle started with our parents and siblings. Then our extended family, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Next would be the rest of the tribe. In more modern times, it’s our neighbors, classmates, and teammates. They are the people we organically run into during our daily schedules. A modern adult’s social circle is likely their nuclear family, a few friends from high school or college, and the people they work with.

Think about that. Let it linger for a moment. The people that make up your social circle are the people you were stuck with from birth, a few people you accidentally met in school or were forced to be around, and the people you have to interact with for a paycheck.

Game Theory is the study of how and why people make decisions, and game is about influencing those decisions. Game starts by knowing the rules, and the rules are only static for finite games. Infinite games have dynamic rules, changeable players, and no agreed upon goal — you play until someone runs out of the will or the resources to play. So, it might be best to start over with a question: which game are you playing?

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If you’re interested in learning more about the influence of tribes, I recommend Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe. If you’d rather learn about hidden plays of power then I recommend Robert Greene’s book The 48 laws of power. Because Greene’s new book on human nature isn’t out yet, you should checkout Robin Dreeke’s book It’s Not All About Me: top ten techniques for building quick rapport with anyone.


I thought you might prefer these sources over typical academic papers. Each video will give you a quick overview of the topics discussed.

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