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In his book, Paper Scissors Stone (Hay House, www.hayhouse.com.au), scientist and 'game theorist' Len Fisher lets us into a secret – game theory is all around us, in the strategies that we use every day in our interactions with others. It also explains what is going on behind confrontations, broken promises, cheating, arguments, and celebrity divorces.

Game theory reaches back 60 years, when John Nash, immortalised in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, devised his Nobel Prize-winning theory, the Nash Equilibrium. This focuses on a point in a relationship or scenario where neither party can escape independently without faring worse. Learning to cooperate more effectively can help us to avoid this trap. Understanding the strategies that shape our behaviour is the key.

Game theorists have uncovered a hidden barrier to cooperation that is a constant, often unrecognised, presence in day-to-day life, arguments and disputes. One of our primary motivations is self-interest and this influences how we judge different scenarios and how we then choose to act. Problems arise when individuals opt for the best outcome for themselves, rather than being willing to cooperate. So, how can game theory help us to change?

Catch-22 logical trap

“Game theory reveals the traps we fall into when we try to logically work out what the best strategies are for getting a job, winning a partner, or surviving life’s vicissitudes,” says Fisher. “Many people tell me that, once they catch on to the basic dilemmas that game theory reveals - in particular the Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoner’s Dilemma - they start to see them everywhere. Game theory permeates real life. It’s a pity about the name, because it is far more than a theory, and it is certainly not just about games!”

The Prisoner’s Dilemma focuses on how lack of communication leads to relationship stalemate. It centres around two prisoners who are interrogated separately. Prior to this, they agree to plead not guilty, for this would ensure a reduced jail term. At the same time, the prisoners are told separately that, if they renege on their pact and tell on their partner, they will go free and their partner will spend 10 years inside. If they both tell on one another, they will receive a four-year jail term each. The dilemma they face is if they do not tell, and instead trust their partner, they are vulnerable to 10 years behind bars as they have no idea what their partner has opted to do. If the two could only communicate, the dilemma could be resolved. Within any relationship scenario, finding a way to communicate and reinstating equilibrium is the optimal course of action.

The Tragedy of the Commons, essentially a multi-person Prisoner’s Dilemma, presents a logical conundrum that lies at the heart of some of the world’s most serious problems, where individuals act independently and rationally consult their own self-interest, when it is clearly not in anyone else’s long-terms interests. Game theory can tip the delicate balance between cooperation and conflict, as its strategies encourage others to cooperate, and in doing so, create circumstances where it pays both parties to keep right on cooperating.

Following a petty argument with my partner, I decided to try Len’s tip on using side payments to ease coalition. I offered an emotional reward for a ceasefire - a bar of his favourite chocolate and an apologetic smile – and waited to see how he would respond. My other half gladly accepted my side payment and efforts, and I felt a lot better, too. Maybe Game Theory can assist relationship gripes after all.

Len’s top 10 tips

1. Stay if you win, shift if you lose If your choice between cooperating and using an independent, non-cooperative strategy turns out to be a winner, stick with it.

2. Bring an extra player in If you are embroiled in a battle of wills and getting nowhere, bring in a third person to uphold a bond or enforce a contract.

3. Set up some form of reciprocity An important incentive for cooperation is knowing you will have to interact with the other party again.

4. Restrict your future options so you will lose out if you don’t cooperate This shows your credibility, such as burning your bridges so you cannot renege.

5. Offer trust If you genuinely offer trust, trust will often be returned, making cooperation much easier.

6. Create a situation that neither party can independently escape from without loss.

7. Use side payments to create and maintain cooperative coalitions This can be money, social or emotional rewards.

8. Reorganise the benefits and costs to avoid falling foul of dilemmas

9. Divide goods, responsibilities, jobs and penalties Our sense of fairness is a strong motivator; tap into this by making situations transparent and agreed upon.

10. Divide larger groups into smaller ones Evidence suggests cooperation is much easier in smaller groups.