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Commentary - A game theory of relationships

Allow me please to paint a picture; a picture most of you have probably experienced at least once or twice and perhaps many more times than that. You meet someone, and start hanging out with them on a regular basis. Weeks pass by and you continue to enjoy the company of said someone. Somewhere along the line, you start to wonder about the romantic prospects of your budding relationship. You suspect your someone is having similar thoughts, but despite any evidence you might have seen you insist that you cannot be sure. It becomes increasingly clear that a conversation looms. Sooner or later the two of you must fess up to your feelings or watch the relationship die away. For the sake of argument we'll assume that both of you do like each other and would ideally like to pursue a romantic relationship if all goes well. Eventually, one of you utters the fateful words: we need to talk. Thus, the trap is set.

Most would agree that one of the fundamental advantages of being human is having the capacity to efficiently communicate complicated and detailed ideas to one another through the extraordinary vehicle of language. In principle, any two people speaking the same language should be able to participate in a conversation and develop working understandings of one another. However, in this example, as in many others in human relationships, this is not the case.

To begin with, language is vague. It is true that all words have definitions, but most words have several definitions, and each of these several definitions can be associated with various connotations, denotations, and distinctions of meaning, which render strict definitions essentially meaningless. Ultimately, the same words mean different things and have different associations for different people. The infinite interactions between meanings and personal biases make understanding the working definitions that others employ exceedingly difficult, even if one has had numerous conversations with them in the past. You and your someone know a lot about each other, but you've never talked about romance, you've never talked about feelings. These areas of conversation bring into play whole slates of vocabulary you've never encountered with one another, and the potential for disaster is immense.

This brings us to a second problem: in high stakes conversation where language is ambiguous, people have a vast incentive to abuse the situational ambiguity. Unaware of the distinctions your someone is drawing, and cognizant of the high stakes situation, you would feel more comfortable keeping your feelings and distinctions as abstract as humanly possible, while trying to convince your someone to deliver detailed and nuanced explanations of their feelings.

Essentially, this situation mirrors the classic prisoner's dilemma game. Both parties in the relationship want to make an effort to understand the definitions being made by the other, but both parties also fear sacrificing too much information and having it misunderstood. If you and your someone both decided to reveal your innermost feelings in complete detail, a deep and intriguing conversation would ensue where you would probably come to understand much about one another. However, your fear of being misunderstood gives you an incentive to horde information and an incentive to exploit the information yielded by your someone. Thus the dominant strategy for both of you is to horde information, keep your conversation as abstract as possible, and never come to full understanding of one another. Neither of you are hurt by this situation, but neither of you are able to enjoy the full pleasure of each others' company either, and all because language is vague.

It would be easy to take that result and write off all possibilities for meaningful human relationships, but what's the fun in that? There is hope, and it lies in an analysis of the dominant strategy. This is where relationships and the prisoner's dilemma diverge. The above example assumes that all people are rational, but we all know they're not, especially where relationships are concerned. So what happens if you choose the dominant strategy and withhold information, but your partner is completely forthright and gives information? According to your logic at the time of the big conversation, all you can process is your fear of being hurt and your desire to know what your someone is thinking. From this standpoint, you've won the game.

So let's say this win results in the two of you entering into a relationship. From the onset, this relationship is now predicated on a skewed balance of power. Your relationship begins with your taking all of the information and your partner taking all of the risks. Over time in your relationship, you will repeatedly encounter circumstances where information exchange between you and your partner is chiefly important. If you continue to withhold information and your partner continues to give information, you gradually come to know your partner better and better, while your partner knows essentially nothing about you. While this is a secure situation for you, it has the potential to become an emotionally devoid battleground where all you consider is how best to exploit your information advantage for increased relationship power. At some point, then, your partner will defect from this relationship, and leave you powerless and alone. What starts out innocent and defensive can in time develop strong and devious offensive power, which cheats you and your someone out of a fulfilling relationship.

If you are aware of the long term pathology of withholding information, the one-time risk of hurt begins to seem less risky, and the potential for disaster less potent. The hope is that the fear is inoculated enough to drive both parties in a conversation to reveal information about each other, despite the potential for misunderstanding and short term pain. More importantly, it should give those listening to information an incentive to process it with care and detail, so that they might understand every nuance and distinction given to it by its speaker. Language is vague and variant from person to person, but a little game theory and a lot of attention should go a long way toward alleviating the pressure that ambiguity puts on human relationships.

Andrew Waugh is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Tuesday.


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