"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Avoiding Transparency–How Game Theory Can Help You To Say One Thing And Mean Another

Transparency. Coming clean and fessing up is what we used to call it. Forthrightness if not complete honesty. Not exactly airing emotional closets or opening the shutters.  Just frankness without weaving and dodging.  As little subterfuge and as few hidden agendas as possible. Truth in labeling, merging backstory and front page, having a vernissage of personal paintings, knowing what’s really on the emotional menu, or deconstructing the sexy photos in Travel Vacations to discover the real Tuscan rental villa.

It should be so easy since no one is asking for the password to your inner rooms.  Saying what you mean is not exactly fracking natural gas from deep shale. 

According to game theory, the player who discloses his strategy last is always at an advantage.  The longer one can keep one’s cards close to the vest, the greater the chances that opponents will guess wrong. The longer one delays making a decision, the more likelihood of acquiring new information that leads to better decisions and better outcomes.

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Cindy Loucks was brought up in a family which applied game theory to social interactions.  When invited to a dinner, for example, the Loucks would put off responding until all other better options had been exhausted.  If nothing better turned up by the pull-by date of the RSVP, they accepted.  In this way, the Loucks concluded, they would always come out on top.  Why settle for a dinner at the Lairds when an invitation from the much more attractive Bennetts might be in the mail?

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Strategies, whether at the poker table or in society have consequences.  Friends of the Loucks at first began to wonder why they took so long to RSVP, then suspected the better offer scenario, and then realized that they were moveable and fungible pieces in their social game.  Especially in a small town like New Brighton, it was not hard to learn where the Loucks had been for dinner.  If they were successful in securing an invitation from the Porters, for example, one of the premier families of the West End, everyone in our their milieu knew about it.

The inevitable question was how could the Loucks be so unaware that the town was on to them?  In time the invitations stopped coming because everyone assumed that they had been the Loucks’ last choice.  Even if they had been the Loucks’ first choice, they had to assume that they were their last.

Cindy and her brother Rob went off to college and applied the family’s game theory there.  The schools were big enough to absorb the Loucks children’s blow-offs for three years; but by senior year they ended up like their parents – alone and eating pot roast.

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It is remarkable that children end up so much like their parents.  A lot has been made of the importance of cohorts – classmates and random but influential older friends – but there is no denying the powerful chemistry of genes, the hothouse environment of family, and the dependence of children on their parents for so many years.  Cindy and Rob Loucks couldn’t have become transparent if their lives depended on it.  Every invitation and offer was automatically put up on the refrigerator and moved up or down in order of changing priority and importance. 

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Cindy had perfected what her uncle called ‘dilatory gaming’. Whenever he invited her to dinner, she would reply immediately, but would call in the middle of the afternoon when he and his wife were at work. She always left the same message. “Hi, Uncle James.  Great to hear from you.  We miss you and love you, and thanks so much for the invitation. I’ll get back to you.” Which of course she never did; but in her view she had discharged her family obligation; but in so doing sent the obvious and unmistakable signal that his name had been moved down the refrigerator list.

I shouldn’t pick on Cindy so much.  Transparency might not have been her long suit, but it wasn’t for a lot of other people as well.  If I were to look at game theory objectively, it makes a lot of sense under certain well defined circumstances – when the probabilistic universe is greater than that of New Brighton, for example.  Why should a politician say yes to the first invitation he receives? In fact, a friend of mine who worked on the last Connecticut race for Congressional District 3, said that his candidate’s computer calendar was a much larger and more complex electronic version of the Loucks’ crude refrigerator system. 

Invitations came into the candidate from every group in the district who wanted a favor or to curry favor; and he couldn’t possibly accept all of them.  He, like the Loucks felt they had to keep up a semblance of civility.  The Loucks wanted to be invited back for dinner at the Porters, and the politician did not want to offend potential voters.  His universe was large enough so that he could alienate some groups through ‘political indifference’ while keeping his electoral base solid.  So his ‘refrigerator’ had another dimension.  Not only were invitations ranked in a sliding order of importance, inviters were ranked on a ‘Dismiss’ scale.  The League of Connecticut Women Democrats did not have to be answered because they always voted Democratic.  The AFL/CIO union affiliate of pipe-fitters not only could not be ignored, they had to be cared for.

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Professional athletes and movie stars who operate in a huge probabilistic universe can afford to blow most people off because there will always be admirers and groupies lining up to take their place.  Transparency is not an issue.  Ja-Damien Peters was so popular in Kansas City that he could cherry-pick friends, associates, and lovers who didn’t care whether or not he liked or loved them.  To him they were simply empty, used boxes which he didn’t bother to recycle.

Lack of transparency – or perhaps an increase in expediency – while rational when played as part of economic game theory, is corrosive in most other venues. The more people game others, the more the gamed will mistrust everyone.  World leaders and politicians say one thing and mean another; and academics parse their public utterances as carefully as scholars work at Biblical exegesis.  But Christ spoke in opaque parables to challenge unbelievers into believing.  Putin, the Ayatollahs, and the Loucks had only their own interests at heart.

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The last I heard from Cindy Loucks was about five years ago.  She had come to Washington with great expectations. There was the Cosmos Club, the Society of the Cincinnati, and the Women’s Club of Washington whose members were all from the capitals oldest and finest families. Despite its reputation as a transit stop for ambitious politicians, Washington does have its well-heeled patrons of society and the arts.  Cindy had expected to thrive in this rarified atmosphere which that of New Brighton could only aspire.

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When I met her she was in an unusually confessional mood.  She had been ‘retired’ from all these clubs and was now foundering on her own.  It didn’t take long for the grandes dames of Washington society to catch on to her chicanery and so they politely let her go.

Cindy had made the mistake of thinking that these old bats were just like any of the other women she had fooled with her sly demurrals and refrigerator moves; but they were old American, solid, and deeply-rooted patriots of their class.  They were more attuned than most to lack of sincerity and tribute.  They outed Cindy as a fraud within a year.

Even though I had grown up with Cindy Loucks, I had been prey to her duplicity for too many years to feel sorry for her.  The surprising thing was that she was not stupid and should have known that people far smarter than she would catch on quickly and dump her over the side faster than bilge on a tugboat.  This was either a tribute to her parents who, after all is said and done, did a remarkable job in fashioning her in their own image; or a serious indictment of them, for tricking the poor girl into thinking that game theory and lack of transparency was the right way to live.

As I have said, Cindy is not alone in her dilemma.  Thousands of people are just like her.  They are attracted to the logic and rationality of game theory; but are too inept to be able to apply it carefully enough to factor in human variables, those tricky little quirks, jealousies, and resentments that can throw off any good plan

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