“I never lose. I either win or learn.” --Nelson Mandela
I watch a lot of science-y and mathe-whizzical stuff. So you don’t have to? No, I watch because I love the stuff. And yeah, maybe math and science are one of those “acquired tastes”, like broccoli, or haggis, and of the two (math and science, not broccoli and haggis) math was a real gagger for me when I was a kid. I couldn’t stand the smell, let alone the taste. But just like mushrooms, which I wouldn’t touch as a kid but I just love ‘em nowadays, I now enjoy math like a gourmet ice cream.
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Maybe if I’d had a math teacher like Dr. Hannah Fry I would have acquired the taste for math much earlier in life. Or maybe I’d have just indulged in teenage infatuation fantasies a lot more often.
Dr. Fry (I’m going to get familiar and just call her Hannah from here on out) elucidates some pretty deep principles on “how to get what you want” in the full video (which I have on MagellanTV), and they sure can be pretty useful in everyday life. Let’s look at some of those tactics.
The min-max theory, or minimizing losses while maximizing gains (John von Neumann). Or, “I split, you choose.”
Let’s say you have a bunch of household chores to be taken care of, and you’ve got a buddy who is supposed to help. How do you divvy up these way-less-than-fun tasks, that are impossible to just classify 50/50, so that nobody can complain that the other sure got off easy? Well, that’s easy. One person makes a list of all of the chores and splits it into two bunches, like this:
Then the other person chooses which of the two she is going to do. Person #1 can’t complain because she decided what went into each list, and person #2 can’t complain because she gets to choose the one that seems most preferable, or the least undesirable. See how it works? If I were to make the two lists, and one of them was all the easiest chores, but I left the choosing between the two lists up to you, it’s not hard to see that I’d probably end up with the worse of the two. This way nobody really “wins”, but neither does anybody actually come out the “loser”.
In business dealings, like negotiating contracts and terms, you’ve got to be like a professional gambler: quantify everything, know the probabilities of every move, be unpredictable, bluff. Maintain “game theory optimal”, meaning you’re unexploitable. Unless you’re up against someone of truly equal caliber, you’re probably going to come out on top. But what happens when the stakes are so high that mutual self-destruction is assured? You know, like we’ve got right now with the global stockpile of nuclear weapons? A potential conflict where everyone could lose? Then your best strategy might indeed be that in which nobody “wins”. That is, above all else you don’t want to end up being the chump with someone else walking away with the whole bag of gold. This brings up the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, or the Nash Equilibrium. This video briefly explains the concept:
What it boils down to is this: sometimes the rational choice is to act irrationally. The rational choice for the prisoners would be to cooperate, and thus receive the minimum penalty, but by the rules of the game the prisoners cannot communicate, therefore neither one can know what the other’s choice is going to be. The best choice, therefore, is to assume the other will act in her own best interest (e.g. testifying against you); therefore you should snitch. This means you might get off real light while the other does hard time, but for certain you won’t get hard time while the other walks. Or, as Hannah puts it in her show, you avoid being the sucker in “the sucker’s payoff”. By being a rat, at least you get kitchen duty for three years instead of cleaning toilets for eight. Or something like that.
In a closer-to-home situation, have you ever been the parent in a car with two kids in the back, you’re not even an hour into your big summer vacation trip, and the kids are already arguing, screaming, over something trivial and meaningless. You’re about to blow, what Do You Do? Well, there’s definitely something you should not do.
Never make a non-credible threat. “If you don’t stop it right now, I’m turning this car around and we’re going home.” Hah! The kids know you won’t do that. You’ll harm yourself just as much as them. Same goes in any competitive or adversarial situation. You’ve got to make your authority stance believable; your opponent has to know you are committed, that you will do what you say. “If you kids don’t knock it off right now, we’re not going to the theme park tomorrow. Instead, we’re spending the entire day at the art museum.” You love art museums (and the kids know it), they hate ‘em. But they know you’ll do it, if forced. Peace restored, at least for the time being.
Hannah delves further into the question suggested above: Is being selfish ever justified? Are there situations in which we can justify being uncooperative? The answer seems to be an unequivocal Yes. Maybe being uncooperative, even though it might mean nobody gets anything out of a situation in which each would have at at least got something, can teach a grossly unfair person that it’s not always the case that “something is better than nothing”. It turns out, especially in economics, that we have an acute sense of what is and isn’t fair. Do you accept the “take it or leave it” offer, if it means what you take is a pittance compared to what the other gets? This is demonstrated in what is called “The ultimatum game.”
Hannah rationalizes the “irrational” act of walking away with nothing, “sacrificing a small win to punish someone”, as having the potential to lead the unfair person to be less selfish in the future. Does this work in real life? Where would you draw the line? 60/40? 70/30? Would you give up $20 free money just to keep the other person from getting $80 free money, simply because that’s “unfair”? Remember, you had nothing to begin with.
Even Capuchin monkeys know a bullshit offer when it’s given.
“Hey! Where’s MY grape? What the fung? I get paid a lousy cucumber for the same job as she gets paid a grape? Well, you can keep your stinkin’ cucumber and take this job and shove it!!”
The bottom line, evolutionarily speaking, says Hannah, is that
“Winning strategies in the long run tend to be generous, hopeful and forgiving. [This] basic moral code just emerged. Perhaps you could even take this as proof of the existence and advantage of goodness.”
“Ultimately, cooperation cannot be suppressed. Thanks to things like altruism, kindness and reciprocity, it reemerges time after time. These aren’t just codes that are divined by priests and philosophers. They have pure mathematics and evolution itself behind them.”
We will never win if we always repay hurt with hurt, although sometimes (rarely, thank goodness) it’s necessary. Most of the time though, it’s best to forgive others for their slip-ups. Nobody’s perfect, and we are all going to make mistakes from time to time. When I screw up, and I sure do often enough, I’m deeply grateful when I’m forgiven for it. That’s a win-win.