Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Survivor, Game Theory and Life

Here it is...my post on Survivor the annoyingly addictive reality TV game show, game theory and how it relates to life...kind of.  

This most recent season of Survivor was probably one of the most fun to watch.  Why?  Because it really couldn't have been better if it was scripted.  Boston Rob, a seasoned player knew exactly what he needed to do and he did it, playing "as close to a perfect game as anyone has played on Survivor".

How?  Game Theory coupled with a little bit of charm, hard work and self admittedly, a little bit of luck.

So here is the thing.  If anyone watched the season, you would know that Rob completely dominated his tribe and they pretty much did whatever he wanted them to do.  It looked pretty easy from our vantage point, but a lot of work went into having that much control over that many people.

According to Game Theory...simplified of course....if you concede just enough to give someone what they want/need, they will in turn give you what you want/need resulting in shared benefits for everyone.  The catch however, is that you have to be willing to give up something.  The Prisoners Dilemma is the most popular example of this.

On Survivor, Rob was able to make each person feel as though he had their best interests in mind.  He promised each one that he would take them to the end and they believed him.  Therefor none of them even considered voting him off until it was to late.  This took a huge amount of insight, a lot of manipulation and a certain amount of mathematical prowess that allowed him to predict the behavior of others.

How does this play out in real life though?  In many instances, people don't cooperate even though the outcome would be best all around if they did.  Why?  Because quite often people have their own interests in mind.  We see this play out in economics and social policy all the time.

We can expect that people are going to do what they believe is best for themselves.  However, if everyone does what is best for themselves, nobody wins.  If people cooperate with each other each individual may not get what they consider to be the "best case scenario" but will ultimately be better off than if they acted upon their selfishness.

Kind of hard to wrap your brain around if you are not use to thinking this way, but fascinating nonetheless.

In Survivor, there can only be one winner, so in the end pretty much everyone but Rob got screwed anyway.  Unless you count all the "life lessons" and getting "closer to God" crap they all spouted at the end.

Real life is much more complicated and "winning" means different things to different people.  It is fascinating though.  Pay attention to what people want, give it to them, and in return...if the theory is correct....you will get what you need.  So simple, yet so incredibly complicated.

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