Beyond game theory

A board game with a small human illustrates how much emotions influence our decisions

The other day, Jenny and I played a game of Ludo with Luka. Its rules are simple enough to make it quite suitable for a five-year-old, even though some more strategic aspects are a bit beyond him. What I didn’t expect was the way in which it would capture some essential aspects of how we make decisions – and I am not thinking of game theory (which is outside my expertise anyway).

In case you are not familiar with Ludo (the name of which signifies “I play” in Latin), it goes as follows. Two, three or four players each have four tokens which they need to race around the board, along a game track consisting of squares, to their “home”. The tokens start off outside the game in the player’s “yard”. They progress according to the outcome of a roll of a single dice: to enter a token on the game track, a player must throw a 6, and subsequently, with each turn, tokens advance the number of squares equalling the value the player rolled. A 6 may be used to enter additional tokens into the game (if there are any left), or to move a token six squares. Rolling a 6 gets a player a bonus roll. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if a player’s token lands on a square that is already occupied by another player’s token, the latter is returned to the owner’s yard, who must then of course roll a 6 in order to re-enter it into the game from the start.

A good start is only half the battle

It took Jenny about 20 rolls before she produced a 6 and could start the game, but Luka and I quickly had a couple of tokens going round the board. A little later, to his delight, Luka managed to kick one of my counters back to my yard. Then his luck started turning: his tokens barely advanced as he rolled several 1s and 2s, and a short while later I landed on a square with one of his tokens and sent it back to his yard. From the corner of my eye, I could see that his lower lip started trembling, and not long after he started sobbing quietly. He bravely kept on playing, though, while Jenny and I tried to console him.

Games do, of course, almost invariably involve emotion. Typically, their central purpose is to win, and it is therefore unsurprising that events which bring us closer to that goal evoke positive emotions, and events that reduce our chances of victory lead to negative emotions. And while adults do not necessarily burst into tears when things are not going their way, the emotions that arise throughout a game often show very clearly (less so in poker, for understandable reasons).

Can you spot the emotion? (image: Michael Summers/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Game theory seeks to model the possible moves of the players in actual games, as well as in interactions that possess key characteristics of games, for example the fact that one person’s chosen moves can limit the possible subsequent choices of another person. However, it is concerned with the behaviour of rational decision-makers of the homo economicus variety. Aside from the implicit assumption that players want to win and not lose, emotions do not figure in game theory. Predicting when a player might start crying or angrily knock over the board is not typically part of a game theoretical analysis.

Emotions at play and outside

Yet, just like in real life, the choices we make while playing a game are not necessarily those of rational decision-makers. You can even wonder how rational the very decision to play a game is: in this case, I had an article to finish and a colleague’s presentation to review – both tasks that would demonstrably deliver utility. And still I chose to play Ludo to please Luka instead. For real humans, this is not such an unusual thing to do: we often make material sacrifices in money, time or effort for others without getting anything in return other than a warm glow and perhaps a sign of their gratitude.

And there were more such ‘irrational’ deviations ahead. On a few occasions, with the number I rolled, one of my tokens could have knocked out Luka’s only remaining one, which would all but have secured my victory in this game of Ludo. The rational decision-maker from game theory would surely have done so, but I opted to move another token instead, and reduce my chances of winning.

One might argue that winning this particular game was not hugely important to me, so the sacrifice I made here was modest – and one would be right. Then again, if my opponent were not a little boy, I would not have chosen to forgo the opportunity to knock him back, even in a friendly, unimportant game. But here, doing so would have made Luka feel sad, and that would have made me feel bad (and sad too). Another small sacrifice for the sake of a little human’s – and my own – emotions.

[Cheating allowed? (image: screenshot The Shooting of Dan McGoo/Tex Avery)

A little later, with only one counter on the board, I rolled a six. This would have landed it on a square with one of Luka’s tokens. I quickly improvised a fictitious rule extension: if you roll a six, you can immediately roll again, add the two numbers together and advance in one go to the destination square without stopping in between. How is that for a bit of moral motivated reasoning? Again, this is not so different from what regularly happens in the real world. We are quite capable of reasoning that breaking some rule or code – especially if nobody is harmed by it and it is an exceptional occurrence – is morally justifiable. Technically it is cheating, but this is where even hardened Kantian deontologists discover they have a Benthamite utilitarian side, and are able to weigh up the pros and cons of a rule violation.

All is well that ends well

Before long, Luka was happy again, especially after – with no intervention from your correspondent! – he proceeded to roll four sixes in a row. And even though, eventually, it was Jenny who won the game, a good time was had by all.

In board games, as in real life, the underlying basis of our behaviour is rational, self-interested and utility maximizing – just like what homo economicus would do. But it doesn’t take much for us to deviate from that, and allow emotions – other people’s and our own – to influence, if not dominate, our decisions. We will even circumvent or break the prevailing rules – not out of immediate self-interest, but for the emotional benefit of someone else about whom we care.

Here, my concern was for a little boy who happens to be my grandson, but out in the wild, we can see plenty of evidence that people are prepared to make similar self-sacrificial gestures even for complete strangers. Perhaps it is this remarkable combination of reason and emotion that is uniquely human.

We are, truly, homo emotionomicus.

About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Economics, Emotions, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

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