Should I Do My Laundry? A Game Theoretic Approach

There comes a time in a man’s life when he faces a monumental choice: he has only one pair of clean underwear left, yet he desperately wants to avoid doing his laundry. Such a dilemma cannot scare me, however, now that I have taken ECON 2005: Formal Modeling for the Social Sciences. Should I get off my ass and do laundry? All I need is some game theory.

Let’s imagine a game with two players, A and B. Player A is me, right now, sprawled helplessly on the carpet, thinking about the insignificance of mankind in an ever-expanding universe. For player A, the decision to do laundry comes with real costs of time and energy. The laundry room is down four flights of stairs in the basement, and it smells of urine and cheap alcohol (due, in part, to prior decisions that Player A made before he became interested in the social sciences). In addition, the laundry hamper is extremely heavy because it is overflowing with unwashed clothes, and Player A cannot recall lifting anything heavier than ten pounds since PhysEd was required in high school.

On the other hand, if Player A does do his laundry right now, he will have clean clothes and the self-esteem to finally leave the house and “carpe diem,” or whatever that means.

Player B is the piece of shit laundry machine that the landlord bought in the early 1990s and refuses to replace. Player B appears to have a mind of its own when cooperating with requests to do laundry. Sometimes it chooses to wash clothes; the rest of the time it sits there, unresponsive, as if silently mocking Player A and his overweight sack of dirty clothing. We can view the potential outcomes of this game in a 2x2 matrix, with payoffs expressed quantitatively:

There are two Nash equilibria in this game: If Player A does his laundry and the laundry machine actually works, both the player and the laundry machine will benefit. Yet if one player reneges and refuses to cooperate, the other player will suffer humiliation: Player A wastes his entire evening (in which he could otherwise be carpe-ing diem), or Player B rots away in obscurity, ready to act but with nothing to fulfill its single function. Yet because they cannot predict each other’s actions, Players A and B are just as likely to choose to stab each other in the back rather than help each other finally feel a sense of purpose in their otherwise meaningless lives.

The analysis above, however, relies on a number of assumptions. Most importantly, it only works if the players are rational actors, which seems unlikely given that Player A is 30 years old and still in graduate school, and that Player B is a laundry machine. Additionally, a rational actor would prefer not to go out into the world smelling like the unmarked tupperware that sits at the back of the refrigerator, yet, to Player A, that doesn’t seem that bad overall, if the other option requires doing laundry.

Ultimately, given the constraints of our model and the potential weaknesses of our assumptions, we cannot definitively conclude whether I should do my laundry.

But all of this thinking about formal modeling has made me hungry. It’s almost 6pm: should I cook dinner? Let’s imagine Player A is me, and Player B is the stupid piece of shit stove that the landlord bought in 1997 that only turns on some of the time. All I need is some game theory.