Brinkmanship (Series on Game Theory)

In a previous post, we introduced you to the concept of game theory, or specifically, the Prisoners’ dilemma. In this post, we will be showing you how another Game Theory concept, brinkmanship, applies to our lives.

another thing that the concept of brinkmanship can teach us is that you should just do what you are supposed to do

1. Project work

Sometimes when doing project work, after everyone has finished their individual parts, someone needs to compile. However, many times people do not want to contribute more than others by compiling. Yet someone clearly has to do it.

Enters the strategy of “brinkmanship” where each person tries to wait out the others, hoping that someone else’s patience will run out first. As the time passes, the risk that no one will compile and the whole group will fail to hand in the project on time increases. Each player lets the risk escalate to the point of his own tolerance. The one who cannot take the uncertainty anymore will eventually sigh and compile.

Taken to the extreme, some group members will not even do their individual parts. Clearly, it is not in their interest for the project to be uncompleted when the deadline arrives. However, they purposely do not do their parts, hoping that you will not stand it anymore and will help them do their parts. This kind of people test your tolerance and want to see how close to the brink of disaster you will let the situation go. The only way to deter this kind of behaviour is to show that you have a high tolerance for risk. “You haven’t done your work even though it is due tomorrow? Make sure you finish it tonight. If not tomorrow, we will all get a scolding from our teacher”. Then make sure you stick to your subtle threat and do not even go onto Google docs to see whether that person is working on the project. Chances are, the previously uncompleted part will be ready the next day. If not, prepare for a scolding from your teacher but show that you will not let anyone take advantage of you. The next time you collaborate with this freeloader (hopefully not), you will have an easier time.

2. Interactions at home

This strategy of brinksmanship might also be seen in your family. Are you the kind who likes to try your luck? If so, you have found a companion in my past self. In the past, before I got a smart phone, I loved to play computer games, so my mother would limit my usage of the computer to 1 hour per day. However, even when the time was up, I would try my luck by continuing to play. My mother, being a busy woman, would just shout from another room for me to turn off the computer. Then, she would go about her own business for another 15 minutes. This would continue for several rounds (with my mother’s voice sounding shriller and shriller by the minute). This could be explained as an exploration of previously untested limits of my freedom and my mother’s authority.

This situation has two endings. The first is when I reach my own tolerance for risk and turn off the computer before my mother’s outburst. The second is when before I can turn off the computer, my mother gets so angry at my disobedience that a confrontation takes place. My mother’s mood becomes soured, I get scolded and I do not get to use the computer for a few days. The latter is a blow-up that results in a lose-lose situation.

One thing you might observe is that when people want to try their luck and take advantage of others, there is an undercurrent of tension and things get ugly quickly. So another thing that the concept of brinkmanship can teach us is that you should just do what you are supposed to do. Your group mates and your parents will thank you for it.

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