North Korea and Game Theory

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A recent post on this blog noted that the current North Korea nuclear showdown is not far afield from what I call “the first ethical dilemma.” This dilemma dates from the time in our distant hunter-gatherer past when our emerging extended-family “mini-civilization” was threatened by the encroachment of another extended family group into “our space.” I presented a 2×2 decision matrix of options and outcomes that looks like this:

If they fight If they share
If we fight We may win or lose We win; they lose
If we share We lose; they win We both win

My key point in presenting this decision matrix (more understood by intuition than logic at that long-ago time, and maybe still now) was that the dilemma comes because the outcome depends primarily on what the other guy does. Therefore, there is no “correct” decision before the fact, and thus we have this dilemma. Economists and mathematicians will recognize this as a basic exercise in economic game theory, a study pioneered by John von Neumann in the 1940s.

This concept was extended to biology by John Maynard-Smith in the 1970s, and he won a Nobel Prize for that work. He used a thought exercise similar to the one above, called the “Hawk-Dove Game,” to mathematically model competition for a shared resource, not just in humans, but in all of evolutionary animal life. One universal survival strategy throughout time he calls conciliation (“share”) while the alternative is conflict (“fight”).

The British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell beat me by over fifty years in applying this “game,” more commonly known as “Chicken” in its most basic form, to describe the 1950s-60s USSR versus USA nuclear “brinkmanship.” He famously said, “Both [the USSR and the US] are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game.” [1] In that same Cold War era, the classic film 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause features teenagers playing a literal game of “Chicken” with their cars, and with a tragic outcome.

One of my favorite movies is the 1983 film WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick. In this film, Broderick’s character is a teen computer hacker who inadvertently sets off a computer simulation game called “Global Thermonuclear War” that comes close to initiating an actual nuclear launch. In the end, the computer simulation “learns,” by playing the game against itself, that the only viable solution is to refuse to play the game in the first place.

Central to game theory is the concept of signaling, where the best way to break through to a solution is to “signal” a message to the other party in order avert mutual destruction. To our hunter-gatherer forebears, human language itself became the key. If you could communicate a message to the other party that, for instance, you spoke the same language, or you had common ancestors, or even worshiped the same God, the odds of shifting the outcome to a “share-share” scenario were greatly improved. Better probabilities equal a better chance for the survival of your clan and to reach “time t+1”.

Our religions and social structures have continued to evolve into very complex, many-layered “signaling systems” that normally keep us from killing each other. But they are still probability-based, and very dependent on the actions of the “other,” who is often just as frightened of us as we are of him (and almost always “him”). The “other” is playing the same game as we are playing, facing the same dilemma that we are. Sometimes the signaling works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

There is an alternative signal to the game of “Nuclear Chicken.” If you can convincingly convey a message to your opponent that, “I’m a much crazier S.O.B. than you are!” then you have also improved the odds of your opponent backing down, and thereby you “win” the game. Unless, that is, you are NOT in fact crazier than the other guy. In that case, you are in for a head-on crash.

That’s where we are right now with North Korea. And we really don’t know who is crazier.

Here is the six-minute spoiler ending to WarGames.


  1. Poundstone, William. “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Poundstone on the Game of Chicken. Who Will Defect First?

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7 thoughts on “North Korea and Game Theory

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