Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 1: "Utility"

Welcome to my first "Quirky Series" (I just invented the idea). A Quirky Series is when I will use a fairly odd lens to make some fairly obvious points. That is, I'm going to go to a lot of work to draw a conclusion that could have been make much more directly and conventionally. So, why will a Quirky Series exist and why should you read?

As for reading, that is up to you. As for why I'm going to write a Quirky Series, well, I like to play around with ideas. I like using ideas from one area and using them in another to see what can be seen. You never know what you might find. I can't promise any new insights will emerge in this Quirky Series, but something interesting might emerge. It'll be an adventure to find out.

In this Quirky Series, I want to use the lens of game theory to examine theological and ecclesial issues. Let the fun begin!

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that formally began in 1944 with the book "The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. In popular culture most are familiar with game theory through the movie A Beautiful Mind and John Nash's story of winning the Nobel Prize in Economics for his discovery of the Nash equilibrium in the field of game theory.

Social scientists have used game theory to uncover a variety of behavioral dynamics. I myself am not a game theorist, but in my classes I have used its findings and way of approaching problems to illustrate various aspects of human psychology. Some of these observations provide an interesting perspective on certain theological and church-related issues.

If this series is interesting to you, follow up with some of these books:

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
The Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone
Game Theory : A Nontechnical Introduction by Morton D. Davis
The Complete Strategyst : Being a Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy by J. D. Williams
The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

Very briefly, game theory is a way of mathematically understanding decision-making. As a branch of mathematics, game theory often yields an analysis of the optimal, rational decision. In real life, people often do not follow the path suggested by game theoretic analyses. This divergence of theory and real-life behavior is, in itself, an object of study. Social scientists are very interested in scenarios where people appear to behave "irrationally" and game theory has helped us find some of those situations.

Game theory really isn't about games as we commonly understand them. "Game" in game theory means an abstract situation where a "player" is faced with two or more "choices" or "moves." Those choices then have "outcomes" or "payoffs." Given this abstract structure, any of our life choices can be viewed as a "game" where my choices have consequences.

The heart of game theory involves issues of utility. Your utility is your amount of satisfaction or happiness given the outcomes of your choices in the "game of life." Your utility is typically manifested in your "preferences." That is, you would prefer some outcomes over others. If your preferences meet certain mathematical requirements then game theory provides a mathematical means of calculating which choices you should make to "maximize your utility," that is, to get the most out of life.

The trouble is, our preferences and our choices in life are often too fluid and fluctuating for game theory to be of any practical use to us. (Although I did use game theory once to decide if I should continue to skip boring meetings at ACU. My moves were "skip meeting" versus "attend meeting." The meetings were designated as either "important" or "trivial." I then listed my preferences for missing an important meeting versus missing a trivial meeting versus attending an important meeting versus attending a trivial meeting given the frequency of each meeting type. The outcome of the analysis: Keep skipping meetings.) Rather, game theory is useful in analyzing decisions in an abstract, theoretical way. This kind of analysis is useful as a comparison with real life. Even if real life diverges from the game theoretic analysis, the analysis enables us to go searching for the phenomena in the first place.

So, the first thing that I'd like us to think about is this: What is your utility?

Game theory assumes we are all "utility maximizers," which is just a complicated way of saying that if I have two choices in front of me I'll pick the one that makes me most "happy." But here is the thing I've been thinking about lately, Do we really know what will make us happy? If you look at our lives, we do all kinds of things that don't make us happy. So why do we do these things? Why do we make such stupid choices when we know it is a stupid choice to begin with?

Game theorists would suggest that all we should do, to infer your utility, is to simply watch your choices. In your behavior we observe your true preferences. If so, that is a challenging premise. When I do that "stupid" thing is there something in me that really wanted it?

So, I leave you today with a question: What do you really want? Verbal answers aside, if we sent a game theorist to follow you around for a week, how would she compute your utility as she watched your life choices? Do your really want to lose weight? Do you really want to help the poor? Do you really want to live more simply? Do you really want to spend more time with God? Do you really want to be a better person?

What do you REALLY want?

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3 thoughts on “Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 1: "Utility"”

  1. Good thoughts.

    As for…

    But here is the thing I've been thinking about lately, Do we really know what will make us happy?

    For this question I think it comes down two important parts. First, how self-aware an individual is about him/herself. The more you get to know yourself, and the more time you spend with yourself (that’s another way of saying, the older you get…HA!), I find you are more likely to know how your “body” or “being” will react to situations. This being the case, you are more likely to know what situations will make you happy and which ones most likely will not. The more self-aware, the more likely you are to distinguish between the two.

    I think a second part to being able to judge if something will make you happy or not (though this one is less personally related), is Bandura’s good ole’ vicarious learning.

    I’ve given vicarious learning some real thought lately (yes, this is how I spend my free time…HA!) and I’ve come to believe vicarious learning is a lot more prevalent than I originally believed. I used to write it off as a form of learning that was really used by young children (modeling the “adults” in their life), but now I’m seeing it occurs more and more with “adults.” [To avoid lengthening this comment, I’ll leave out my examples and just continue on with my reasoning for vicarious learning relating to happiness.]

    As vicarious learning is explained, it comes down to a weighing of “choices,” just as you have mentioned with “game theory.” Modeling behaviors without the weighing of choices is merely imitation.

    Having said this, I am not saying vicarious learning can necessarily TELL you “what will make [you] happy,” however, I do believe we can use it to more closely to judge what will make us happy. If you see a behavior that has turned out to have pleasant consequences for another individual, or even more importantly for several individuals, we are more likely to expect the choice to turn out pleasant, or with “happy” results, for us as well. So, vicarious learning can be an important piece in deciding “what will make us happy,” I believe.

    In reference to this question…

    If you look at our lives, we do all kinds of things that don't make us happy. So why do we do these things?

    I struggle with this thought, and maybe it is more because off the top of my head I am not having an example come to mind as of something that we might “choose” to do that does not “make us happy.” And that very well could just be because I tend to have a tough time coming up with specific examples immediately when asked for one to reference a specific context. So, if you would like to give me an example or two here, that is fine, but without the examples, I will say this…

    I think sometimes we need to be sure to look deeper than “immediate gratification.” Yes, many times behaviors are not immediately gratifying (and this in itself can be troublesome for impatient people), but I think it is important to look to see if the “choice” made was one made in full cognition that it would not make us happy immediately, but rather, a “choice” made with hopes and plans for happiness to come.

    I don’t know, but I like to think of myself as a very purpose-driven individual. I think decisions I make, even smaller decisions like should I buy this item at the store or not, I usually catch myself asking, “What is my purpose for choosing one way or another?” This all very well could just be because I am a “thinker,” so I just over-think things, I don’t know, but if we make choices out of purpose for self “good” or for self “happiness,” which I think we do, based on my belief in selfishness (I’ll note that in one second), then I believe sometimes we do do things that might not make us say “happy” at the time, but we have connected them cognitively to an outcome down the road that will “pay off” in the end—thus bringing us happiness.

    I bring up my belief in selfish choices because I am a firm believer that, though I do not think it helps any of us out in the altruism department, most of our behaviors ARE selfishly driven. [And I do want to note that I do not believe we are always conscious of our selfish desires; I think more often then not, it is unconsciously tied to self-sought pleasure.]

    With our “choices” being made selfishly, and my believing that humans prefer happiness over unhappiness, I believe that we do cognitively make choices that we believe will “make us happy.” Unfortunately, these “choices” might not all lead to immediate happiness, or even happiness in the future at all, but I would argue that our purpose for making that choice in the first place was tied to plans for happiness. With the case of lack of immediate happiness I have previously explained, but as for choices being made and then they do not end up leading to happiness in the future at all, this can be a case of, we thought our action would bring happy results and we just thought wrong—a case of misinterpreted expectations.

    In the end…

    What do you really want?

    I think human nature is to want “to be happy.” ;)

  2. Kim,
    It was so good to see you last week!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking response.

    I'm reading a book right now I think you'd like. It is called "Strangers to Ourselves" by Timothy D. Wilson. Some of my questions you've responded to have been influenced by Wilson's book. Basically, he argues that we have two "personalities," a conscious personality and an unconscious personality. In some people the two overlap and in others there is a disjoint. Wilson argues that "self-awarness" is only effective if we are truly tapping into our tacit/unconscious motives. Much of self-awareness can be simple "story telling" That is, we "look" at ourselves and then paint a feel-good story about "how we really are."

    Interestingly, Wilson offers a suggestion for self-awareness similar to the one you propose. He suggests that we ask other people how we really are. He cites some studies suggesting that other people are often better predictors of our behavior than we are.

    Anyway, a lot of your post reminded me of Wilson so I wanted to pass the title on to you.

    Take care,

  3. Dr. Beck: It made my day when I got to see you last week! What can I say, I got lucky to run into you as I was leaving! ;)

    As for Wilson's book, I'll definitely have to look into that one. I've added it to my list of "books to read," but we'll just have to see when I can make myself get around to reading it...HA! I'm not the most disciplined reader!

    You know I would definitely have to agree with the description you shared about Wilson's belief that we should "ask other people how we really are."

    I truly believe that on one'own, he/she is incapable of fully understanding one's self. We must have input from an outside source to get a better understanding. Not that I think we can ever FULLY understand our self, but for a better understanding than what we can provide our self on our own.

    I've touched on my beliefs on this topic of coming to a better self-understanding in a post on my blog actually. It is basically in the first part of this entry...

    Thanks for the book referral! It definitely does sound interesting, as I find the topics of the conscious and unconscious very interesting, and unfortunately, social work doesn't look too closely into those topics.

    Take care, sir!

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