Game Theory and Social Emotions

Game theory examines the ways that various people “play” their interactions with others. All games take place on at least two levels. The first is material gain or loss (often quantifiable, and the focus of most formal game theory), and the second, psychological perception of having won or lost (rarely quantifiable until recently, ignored). In honor-shame cultures, the perception of others’ actions plays a much stronger role than “rational” concerns about material gain and loss regardless of relative advantage which, in principle, governs civil society behavior (rational choice theory). Rational choice theory, focused on quantifiable self-interest as a motivation, tends to downplay emotional components of game playing. It discusses fixed- and variable-sum games. The following discussion analyzes the cultural and emotional dimensions of a player’s preference for one strategy over another, and focuses on zero-, positive- and negative-sum games.

ZERO-SUM GAMES are games in which one side wins and the other loses. Hard zero-sum insists that only when the other loses can one win. Hard zero-sum reflects an emotional demand that a victory can only be savored when the defeated one knows himself to be defeated. All sports and gambling games are zero-sum. War, theft and raiding are hard zero-sum. The dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled” takes zero-sum relations at a political level as axiomatic. I must dominate lest you do the same. Do onto others before they do onto you.

POSITIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides win. In closed positive-sum transactions, although both parties may “win”, one side is guaranteed a significantly greater victory (noblesse oblige, or British imperialism). Open-ended positive-sum is based on a voluntary agreement to interact (contract, joint venture, constitution) on rules that apply equally to both sides, and an agreement that whatever results from the interaction, both sides will accept no matter how diverse the end result (civil society, meritocracy). Rationality and “rational choice theory” assume that actors will work to maximize their own advantage, with minimal concern for how it might help someone else even more.

NEGATIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides lose. This represents the height of irrationality to positive-sum players, but it proves a surprisingly durable choice of game-players. The self-destructive element in conjunction with aggression often derives from losing a hard zero-sum game and not accepting an offer to switch to positive-sum. As the joke runs, a genie offers a peasant one wish, but whatever he chooses his neighbor will get double. “Poke out one of my eyes,” the peasant responds.

THE EMOTIONS AND LOGIC OF ZERO-SUM: I win, you lose; or, you win, I lose. In modern society, these interactions get played out in sports. When played out in economic life, however, zero-sum assumes a fixed set of resources (no economic growth). Therefore, whatever has worked to the advantage of the other has diminished the self. In its harshest forms, zero-sum holds that not only does one person win and the other lose, but in order for one to win, the other must lose. Zero-sum emotions include:

  • total scarcity — if you gain (wealth, status), I lose
  • Schadenfreude — your misfortune brings me gladness;
  • envy — your success diminishes me;
  • triumphalism — I’m bigger because you are smaller; and
  • resentment — as long as you have more success than me, I despise you, if necessary in secret.

The appeal of these emotions — risking all to feel triumphalism and dominion — is well-nigh universal. Hence, in civil societies, zero-sum games are delegated to sports and gambling. In prime divider societies, they invade the realm of real life: “war is the sport of kings.”

In order to understand this mentality, we have to put aside cognitive egocentrism. We are raised in a culture that places heavy emphasis on positive-sum relations, or on the notion of mutually beneficial win-win. We consider positive-sum so obviously appropriate that it is virtually synonymous with rationality. When our economists assume rationality as their axiomatic understanding of individual decision-making, they reflect this widespread cultural assumption that, at least formally, dates back to Adam Smith. And not surprisingly, the mentality of zero-sum – one wins, one loses – strikes us, as self-destructive.

Let us consider the nature and logic of zero-sum interactions, especially in terms of the emotional pay-offs. The basic rule of human interaction in many honor-shame cultures holds that honor is a limited commodity, that one person’s honor means the loss of honor of another. Politically this leads to what Eli Sagan has termed the “paranoid imperative”: rule or be ruled. “If I don’t rule over you, you will rule over me. I must therefore try to dominate you lest you dominate me. If you win, I lose; in order for me to win, you must lose.”

(I prefer the designation “dominating imperative” for this set of beliefs. The paranoid imperative I prefer to reserve for: exterminate or be exterminated. Hence the distinction in matters of Judeophobia between, for example, zero-sum anti-Judaism and paranoid anti-Semitism.)

This attitude of rule-or-be-ruled justifies what Mao used to call “pre-emptive retaliation strikes.” They happen all the time, from international relations to familial ones. The classic expression of this attitude comes in two forms: 1) the more basic “honor-shame” culture of the tribal warrior, where honor comes from dominion (that is, the Germanic, Celtic, and Mediterranean subterranean levels of European culture), and 2) the “civilized empires” in which a certain degree of restraint in the exercise of immediate dominion opened up both a space for an expanding “middle class”, largely urban, and for a much wider range of conquest and dominion for a small elite.

As the Romans liked to tell themselves, the first Romans quickly understood that they could either be masters or slaves, so they chose to be masters, and did it so well that they conquered the world. Rome is the poster boy for libido dominandi (the lust to dominate). Roman imperialism illustrates the accuracy of the Athenian remark to the Melians ca. 416 BCE that it had been a law long before their time and would be long after, “that those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.”

This statement helps us understand the emotional and strategic logic of zero-sum in what seemed like a negative-sum choice in the genie-peasant joke cited above: “Poke out both my eyes.” If this were a chess move (i.e. a zero-sum game) rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it. In one deft move, this man has turned around a painful dilemma into a spectacular “win” for himself. The peasant’s dilemma was that anything that benefited him, made his neighbor twice as well off: a thousand head of cattle for him meant two thousand for his neighbor. In the world of the dominating imperative, one assumes that if one’s neighbor is twice as wealthy as oneself, that neighbor will use his superiority to try to control you. Our peasant resolves the dilemma with a dramatic queen sacrifice: “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king.” He has bought his dominion at the price of his self-mutilation. Envy unchecked is one of the key components of a culture of impoverishment.

THE LOGIC AND EMOTIONS OF POSITIVE-SUM: The logic of positive-sum seems clear to people brought up in civil society. Compromise is the essence of democracy; going for hard zero-sum blights growth and mutual prosperity. But the emotions of zero-sum can be quite demanding. In order to neutralize Schadenfreude, especially in a modern society where individuals’ conditions change rapidly, one has to learn to tolerate, even take pleasure in other people’s success. The “rational” response to the genie’s dilemma — one might call it the American response — is to say, “give me ten million bucks and good for my neighbor who gets twenty.”

To accept defeat without scape-goating, cheating, or using force to redress the imbalance requires a commitment to fair-play and self-criticism (i.e., to accepting the “bad” news that one has lost). This generous attitude towards others and modesty towards oneself are not easy and natural emotions. They must be fostered. Both civil society and demotic millennialism nurture these emotions, and great men like the Englishman William Blake can “root” for the Americans in their desire to be free of his own nation’s imperialism.

The emotional dimensions that determine these two worlds of social interaction also substantiate the emotional attachments some of us have either to the Politically-Correct Paradigm (PCP (we are all committed to positive-sum games) or the Honor-Shame Jihad Paradigm (JP) (they are committed to zero-sum desires). Our ironic dilemma is that the more those who favor the naturally generous view of positive-sum adhere to PCP, the more they contribute to the zero-sum behavior of demopaths and the hard-zero-sum players whose intentions they systematically misinterpret. Without understanding the interplay between the logic and emotions of zero- and positive-sum strategies, we will have difficulty figuring a way out of the current dilemma of the thrash of cultures.

3 Responses to Game Theory and Social Emotions

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  2. emil per says:

    libido dominandi … funny how Roman history can serve to prove anything; what do you say about the anectode that brought the plebs back to the city after the secession of 449 BC ? In my books that’s a perfect example for a positive sum game.

    We all play the full array of games (positive sum, zero sum or negative sum), depending on which one gives a better chance of not losing. The Romans had their negative sum game period during the first civil war (Sulla and Marius’s followers butchered each other even if this weakened the City) but before the second one it seems that Julius Caesar did his best to avoid this and turn it into a positive sum game (let’s get power by beating and plundering the Gauls, not the Romans). libido dominandi was bragging, since the Romans made their empire by winning mostly defensive wars up to the second century AD, and then took great pains and expenses to engage it’s querullous neighbours in a positive sum game as foederati while playing the zero sum games of (mostly benign since the civilians were not very much involved) civil wars for the position of imperator.

    I did not know the genie-peasant joke … does it originate in one of the “positive sum game” cultures or in one of the honor-shame cultures ? If it’s an “arabian nights” joke, then it means that those who found it funny clearly knew how idiotic was the peasant’s choice of having one of his eyes poked only to have his neighbour blinded, and also that those people telling jokes about djinnis and peasants were well aware of the advantages of playing positive sum games.

    The issue is not which kind of game is played, but which are the tokens used to keep the score, and who are those that are recognized as relevant partners in the game, and who are those that are … the board. I suspect that what we see as an Israeli-Arab conflict is a positive sum game played by the Muslims among themselves: the score is kept in “devotion to Islam” and Israel is only the board on which the game is played. The same paradigm could explain why WWI did not end sooner and did not end in a white peace (French and German politicians competing among themselves), why the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 etc.

    I believe that using the “honour-shame cultures”/“civilized empires” dichotomy is intelectually dangerous and mostly useless: it just puts labels where explanations are needed, and tells us nothing that we do not already know, such as: being too pridefull is not indicated/people that make compromises get along better and prosper. It is way more interesting to look at why a certain type of game is chosen and which are the players.

  3. RL says:

    thank you emil for your long and thoughtful post:

    libido dominandi … funny how Roman history can serve to prove anything; what do you say about the anecdote that brought the plebs back to the city after the secession of 449 BC ? In my books that’s a perfect example for a positive sum game.

    if you mean the resolution to the struggles between plebs and patricians, yes. and that’s what’s needed to establish successful non-monarchical polities… for the elites to empower the commoners (in this case with tribunes as representatives). note that the plebs were demanding a written law — not even an egalitarian one, just one where they could know the rules, and note also the enormous resistance from the patriciate which played hard zero-sum until forced to relent.

    We all play the full array of games (positive sum, zero sum or negative sum), depending on which one gives a better chance of not losing. The Romans had their negative sum game period during the first civil war (Sulla and Marius’s followers butchered each other even if this weakened the City) but before the second one it seems that Julius Caesar did his best to avoid this and turn it into a positive sum game (let’s get power by beating and plundering the Gauls, not the Romans).

    actually it’s more complicated than that… and that’s what i tried to get at in my post on the emotions involved. what you perceive as offering “a better chance” depends on how you view the other players. for the peasant in the joke, it was unquestionable that his neighbor would use his advantage to screw him (no good turn goes unpunished). his choice is “rational” given how he views the players. similarly, the arabs project the same zero-sum, i’ll screw you any chance i can get, mentality onto israel, and always reads israeli concessions not as invitations to a positive-sum relationship but either as a trick to be rejected (arafat at camp david) or as weakness and invitation to aggression (after camp david). i’ve addressed these issues in a post on cognitive egocentrism.

    libido dominandi was bragging, since the Romans made their empire by winning mostly defensive wars up to the second century AD, and then took great pains and expenses to engage it’s querullous neighbours in a positive sum game as foederati while playing the zero sum games of (mostly benign since the civilians were not very much involved) civil wars for the position of imperator.

    this is what i call “closed positive-sum” — we both win, i win a whole lot more than you (neighbors, conquered peoples) so that the lines of dominion are clear. “open-ended” is a much more dangerous game to play because you can’t predict the way things will turn out… trusting the other becomes far more critical. modernity is, in principle, an open-ended positive sum game, and as such creates much instability (constant change) and much anxiety.

    I did not know the genie-peasant joke … does it originate in one of the “positive sum game” cultures or in one of the honor-shame cultures ?

    it originates in an envy culture, of which there are many. i heard it as a russian peasant joke. variant: “any wish… i wish ivan’s goat were dead.” there are others: “why is the camerounian the only cauldron in hell without a top? because if anyone tries to get out, the others will pull him back down.” it happens that honor-shame cultures tend to be very zero-sum in their approach: one anthropologist called one such case a “culture of total scarcity” — both material and moral (honor) goods are strictly limited. your gain is my loss. but even in the USA, which is one of the more positive-sum cultures on the planet, you get the variant of “three choices, but your ex gets triple” and he asks for fabulous wealth, an ideal spouse, and a little heart attack.

    If it’s an “arabian nights” joke, then it means that those who found it funny clearly knew how idiotic was the peasant’s choice of having one of his eyes poked only to have his neighbour blinded, and also that those people telling jokes about djinnis and peasants were well aware of the advantages of playing positive sum games.

    that’s a generous reading. obviously the joke is to show the dangers of zero-sum, but i would not jump to the same conclusions you do. a) the choice is not idiotic: in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed is king. for many people in hard zero-sum cultures, this joke is about a brilliant solution. i’d go so far as to say all kingship (ruler for life, above the law, dynastic monopoly on power) represents a form of cultural mutilation (the early romans would agree), but most cultures would not think that at all. b) the joke is definitely not about the advantages of playing positive sum, at best a warning of the danger of playing too hard a zero-sum. if you want a “joke” about positive sum, read the Wife of Bath’s tale in the Canterbury Tales.

    The issue is not which kind of game is played, but which are the tokens used to keep the score, and who are those that are recognized as relevant partners in the game, and who are those that are … the board. I suspect that what we see as an Israeli-Arab conflict is a positive sum game played by the Muslims among themselves: the score is kept in “devotion to Islam” and Israel is only the board on which the game is played. The same paradigm could explain why WWI did not end sooner and did not end in a white peace (French and German politicians competing among themselves), why the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 etc.

    interesting. good point about the arab world. indeed the jihadi view of jihad is specifically framed in win-win terms: if you die you go to heaven, if you win, you expand dar al islam. but there’s a famous arab proverb about me and my brother against my father, me and my family against the clan, me and my clan against the other clans, me and my people against the outsiders, and so on… in other words, depending on the nature of the threat, you circle different wagons, but the default is as small an inner alliance (positive-sum) as possible against the outside (zero-sum). the key is how one reacts to losing a zero-sum conflict. in the case of the arabs with the zionists, it was negative sum.

    the real challenge of positive-sum is “how far can you spread it?” progressives in the west have spread it first to all the members of civil society (the social contract). since the 60s and the anti-war movement the idea has been to spread those principles across the board to the whole world. of course the problem is, to play positive sum games you have to trust. what of cultures that still operate towards you in hard zero-sum terms.

    I believe that using the “honour-shame cultures”/“civilized empires” dichotomy is intelectually dangerous and mostly useless: it just puts labels where explanations are needed, and tells us nothing that we do not already know, such as: being too pridefull is not indicated/people that make compromises get along better and prosper. It is way more interesting to look at why a certain type of game is chosen and which are the players.

    you’re not the only one to object. you might want to look at this long post for a better articulation of the problem. i actually think honor-shame culture is one of the best ways to understand why some people chose to play zero-sum, even tho it’s not (by the standards of a “guilt-integrity” culture) “rational” (ie positive-sum).

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