Sunday, March 6, 2011

Nice Guys, Frank Burns, and Game Theory

"It's nice to be nice… to the nice." – Col. Frank Burns on the TV show M*A*S*H

It surprises me that a great quote for nice guys comes from Frank Burns, who I never would associate with being one. But the heart of the quote really reflects the dilemma that nice guys face in their daily lives. They like to be nice. They want to be nice. But not everyone plays nice back. So what to do?

This is where game theory comes into play. Game theory is a form of applied mathematics that deals with behavior in strategic situations, where an individual’s success depends on the actions of others. Instead of using the terms “nice” or “not nice”, game theory would use the words “cooperative” or “non-cooperative”. There is mathematical proof that playing a game always from a constantly cooperative standpoint is not the most effective. Neither is playing from a non-cooperative standpoint all the time.

What turns out to create the best outcomes is having a hybrid strategy. In this strategy, you always start interacting with the player cooperatively. Then, your next move is a mirror of their last move. If they acted cooperatively, you continue to act cooperatively. If they act uncooperatively, you act on uncooperatively. In other words, always start out nice. But then treat others as they treat you.

You can imagine this in the work world as a way of training people how to treat you. Of rewarding good behavior, but not bad. I've seen too many nice guys just smile and take it when people really behave badly to them. Game theory points us to a mathematical proof that this is not an effective way to go through life. And apparently, Frank Burns would concur.

Wishing you the best. Sincerely, Peter Hannah