Game theory examines the ways that various people “play” their interactions with others. All games take place on at least two levels. The first is material gain or loss (often quantifiable, and the focus of most formal game theory), and the second, psychological perception of having won or lost (rarely quantifiable until recently, ignored). In honor-shame cultures, the perception of others’ actions plays a much stronger role than “rational” concerns about material gain and loss regardless of relative advantage which, in principle, governs civil society behavior (rational choice theory). Rational choice theory, focused on quantifiable self-interest as a motivation, tends to downplay emotional components of game playing. It discusses fixed- and variable-sum games. The following discussion analyzes the cultural and emotional dimensions of a player’s preference for one strategy over another, and focuses on zero-, positive- and negative-sum games.
ZERO-SUM GAMES are games in which one side wins and the other loses. Hard zero-sum insists that only when the other loses can one win. Hard zero-sum reflects an emotional demand that a victory can only be savored when the defeated one knows himself to be defeated. All sports and gambling games are zero-sum. War, theft and raiding are hard zero-sum. The dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled” takes zero-sum relations at a political level as axiomatic. I must dominate lest you do the same. Do onto others before they do onto you.
POSITIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides win. In closed positive-sum transactions, although both parties may “win”, one side is guaranteed a significantly greater victory (noblesse oblige, British imperialism). Open-ended positive-sum is based on a voluntary agreement to interact (contract, joint venture, constitution) on rules that apply equally to both sides, and an agreement that whatever results from the interaction, both sides will accept no matter how diverse the end result (civil society, meritocracy). Rationality and “rational choice theory” assume that actors will work to maximize their own advantage, with minimal concern for how it might help someone else even more.
NEGATIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides lose. This represents the height of irrationality to positive-sum players, but it proves a surprisingly durable choice of game-players. The self-destructive element in conjunction with aggression often derives from losing a hard zero-sum game and not accepting an offer to switch to positive-sum. As the joke runs, a genie offers a peasant one wish, but whatever he chooses his neighbor will get double. “Poke out one of my eyes,” the peasant responds.
THE EMOTIONS AND LOGIC OF ZERO-SUM:
In order to understand this mentality, we have to put aside cognitive egocentrism. We are raised in a culture that places heavy emphasis on positive-sum relations, or on the notion of mutually beneficial win-win. We consider positive-sum so obviously appropriate that it is virtually synonymous with rationality. When our economists assume rationality as their axiomatic understanding of individual decision-making, they reflect this widespread cultural assumption that, at least formally, dates back to Adam Smith. And not surprisingly, the mentality of zero-sum – one wins, one loses – strikes us, as self-destructive.
Let us consider the nature and logic of zero-sum interactions, especially in terms of the emotional pay-offs. The basic rule of human interaction in many honor-shame cultures holds that honor is a limited commodity, that one person’s honor means the loss of honor of another. Politically this leads to what Eli Sagan has termed the “dominating imperative”: rule or be ruled. If I don’t rule over you, you will rule over me. I must therefore try to dominate you lest you dominate me. If you win, I lose; in order for me to win, you must lose.
This attitude justifies what Mao used to call “pre-emptive retaliation strikes.” They happen all the time, from international relations to familial ones. The classic expression of this attitude comes in two forms: 1) the more basic “honor-shame” culture of the tribal warrior, where honor comes from dominion (that is, the Germanic and Celtic subterranean levels of European culture), and 2) the “civilized empires” in which a certain degree of restraint in the exercise of immediate dominion opened up both a space for an expanding “middle class”, largely urban, and for a much wider range of conquest and dominion for a small elite. As the Romans liked to tell themselves, the first Romans quickly understood that they could either be masters or slaves, so they chose to be masters, and did it so well that they conquered the world. Rome is the poster boy for libido dominandi (the lust to dominate). Roman imperialism illustrates the accuracy of the Athenian remark to the Melians ca. 416 BCE that it had been a law long before their time and would be long after, “that those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.”
This statement helps us understand the emotional and strategic logic of zero-sum in what seemed like a negative-sum choice in the genie-peasant joke cited above: “Poke out both my eyes.” If this were a chess move (i.e. a zero-sum game) rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it. In one deft move, this man has turned around a painful dilemma into a spectacular “win” for himself. The peasant’s dilemma was that anything that benefited him, made his neighbor twice as well off: a thousand head of cattle for him meant two thousand for his neighbor. In the world of the dominating imperative, one assumes that if one’s neighbor is twice as wealthy as oneself, that neighbor will use his superiority to try to control you. Our peasant resolves the dilemma with a dramatic queen sacrifice: “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king.” He has bought his dominion at the price of his self-mutilation.
THE LOGIC AND EMOTIONS OF POSITIVE-SUM:
The emotional dimensions that determine these two worlds of social interaction also substantiate the emotional attachments some of us have either to PCP (positive-sum desires) or the HSJP (zero-sum desires). Our ironic dilemma is that the more those who favor positive-sum pursue PCP, the more they contribute to the zero-sum behavior of demopaths and the hard-zero-sum players for whom they cover. Without understanding the interplay between the logic and emotions of zero- and positive-sum strategies, we will have difficulty figuring a way out of the current dilemma of the thrash of cultures.