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Lecturer argues for game theory in conflict resolution

| Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Thursday afternoon in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies, Robert J. Carroll, visiting research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, gave a Kroc-sponsored lecture titled, “What Game Theory Can Teach Us About War and Peace,” which focused on the fundamentals of game theory and its application to conflict prevention.

“I hope I can convince you that game theory is a useful tool in the peacemaker’s kit,” Carroll said. “It helps us make valid arguments and identify generalizable mechanisms.”

Carroll cited conflict game theorists and 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences laureates Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann as evidence that game theory is transforming the study of international relations.

Anticipating common criticisms of mathematical modeling and game theory, Carroll emphasized that models are like maps in that both are purpose-relative, explanatory tools and not exhaustive depictions of every aspect of a situation.

“In fact, discrepancies with reality are opportunities,” Carroll said.

He explained that contradictions between real human behavior and model predictions allow students of game theory to pinpoint specific underlying mechanisms.  Carroll said there are three components required for a game: players, strategies and preferred outcomes for each party, commonly called utilities.

Carroll used the classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma to illustrate game theory. He then said the Nash equilibrium, which states that for any game with a finite number of players and a finite number of strategies there will be a certain set of rational decisions, is applicable and even essential to conflict resolution.

“There always exists a set of negotiated settlements that both sides prefer to fighting and the set of mutually preferable outcomes for both parties is called the bargaining range,” Carroll said.

However, Carroll said the reality of war is not easily resolved with a simple model.

“There are two explanations for the failure of the peace model,” he said. “There are information, which is often privately held with the incentive to misrepresent, and commitment, which is uncertainty about the future relative power of both parties.”

From the rationalist perspective, Carroll said private information about military strength is the best explanation for mutual optimism, or the willingness of both countries to go to war.

“In order to try to resolve informational problems, mediators need to build trust,” Carroll said.

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  • Humanitas

    Well-structured article, thank you. However, “conflict prevention” is not “conflict resolution”. Game theory has yet to address the ambiguous gray nuances of the root causes of violent conflict.