Can game theory avoid wars?

Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann won the Nobel Prize for his study of situations of conflict and cooperation. He shares a simple but significant answer.

10 Nov 2021 Robert J. Aumann, Society 3 min read
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The question itself may sound ridiculous. Can a theory help avoid wars? Robert Aumann, an expert in the field of game theory, says that while no theory will ever be able to do that, people can. In times of unrest, it is human beings who make decisions and by that decide on matters of war and peace. Game theory designs the tools and strategies to help decision makers in conflict situations to hopefully avoid what has been a constant in human history: war and devastation.

Aumann is best known for his research and breakthroughs on repeated games which are a profound basis for the study of war. He proved that no human interaction is one-shot-game, which greatly impacted the rules of strategy and rational behavior in a conflict. “There are things like revenge, threats and trust and altruism, helping each other, which don’t seem to be rational, which are not egoistic,” Aumann explains. “But in the framework of repeated games, it does advance your goals.”

What Aumann means by this is that people are cognizant of the fact that next time they are in need of help, the probability of people helping them who they have helped is much higher. This is why the word incentives is so important.

“Sometimes you have to fight,” he says. “That is the point. If you’re willing to fight and you give that impression – and that impression must be really true – then you won’t have to fight.”

Aumann points to the Cold War as an example, which turned into a scientific model and national security policy, aptly called Mutual Assured Destruction. Simply put, any possible nuclear attack would be retaliated in the same way. This would lead to a situation in which neither side could win and therefore to an armistice.

“The possibility of disaster has to be serious. You can’t make other people believe it’s serious, unless it is serious,” Aumann explains, underlining the core factor that led to the Mutual Assured Destruction during the Cold War: an equilibrium of horror.

But the Cold War is only one example of armistice, it is not an eternal one. The hatred today is still the seed to many wars. It seems to be the saddest form of evidence, that no theory alone can give people the humanity needed to overcome these battlefields. Game theory designs the strategic pillars to get out of any conflict situation, but we as people have to look out for them and use them in order to find peace.

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Robert J. Aumann

Nobel Laureate, 2005

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