CMU associate prof’s book plugs game theory into parenting
The kids are arguing about what to watch on TV or how to divide a list of chores.
Perhaps the answer comes from employing prisoner’s dilemma, developing credible threats or using strategic voting — all game-theory concepts associated with economics, psychology, political science and computer science.
According to Kevin Zollman, an associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University and a game-theory expert, using tactics used for interactive computations or complex negotiations are surprisingly effective when used to settle children’s squabbles.
“I kind of knew (game theory) would have something to say about parenting,” says Zollman, co-author of “The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal With the Toughest Negotiators You Know — Your Kids” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). “But it really shocked me, once we got started, how easily we kept coming up with ideas.”
Zollman is an unlikely parenting expert, not having any children. But his co-author, Paul Raeburn, is a parent, and Zollman was able to tap into his own childhood for stories, including desperately wanting a cat when he was 8 years old. Zollman got the cat, but his parents ended up taking care of it.
“There were a lot of situations in my own childhood where my parents could have used game theory,” Zollman says, laughing. “I also have a number of friends who are game theorists at other universities, so I spent a lot of time talking to them.”
One of the practices examined in “The Game Theorist’s Guide” is how parents make noncredible threats. A young girl is watching too much television, so her father threatens to get rid of their cable package. But because the father likes watching sports — and the girl knows this — she realizes his threat is empty and doesn’t modify her behavior.
The solution? It could as simple as planning a family activity when the girl’s favorite show is on television.
“One of the central ideas of game theory is that people are really smart at predicting what someone is going to do,” Zollman says. “If you make an idle threat, kids are quick to figure out that Dad doesn’t want to do that. … It’s so easy for parents to threaten with something without thinking through what’s going to happen when it comes time to follow through on that threat.”
Parents should realize their children have a knack for and understanding of gamesmanship. While they may not be able to rationalize what they’re doing, children are often driven by an innate desire to get what they want and, therefore, have no qualms about testing boundaries.
“They learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t,” Zollman says. “I don’t want to say they’re trying to manipulate their parents, but they don’t have work or all the other obligations their parents have. So they’re dedicating a lot of their mental life to figuring out what are their parents going to do. “
Using game theory on children does have limitations. Zollman says it works best with children who are 8 or older, the age when they develop the ability to plan and feel empathy for others.
Once learned, however, the practical applications of game theory have few limitations.
“The really cool thing about game theory is it takes these different social phenomena that don’t seem similar at all and unites them under one roof,” Zollman says. “You can see how this problem that you have at work, this problem that you have at home, this problem that presidential candidates are facing, are in a certain sense all examples of the same thing. You can connect everything together, and it allows you to import from one place to another. “
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.