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Game Theory In Parenting

I wouldn’t know, but I’m sure that parenting can be difficult. Imagine raising a human being – teaching him or her right from wrong, healthy habits from unhealthy habits, good manners from bad manners. Sometimes, parents have to convince their children to do things that they don’t want to do like eating their vegetables, cleaning their rooms, brushing their teeth. How do you convince in irrational, hormonal little person to do something from which they derive absolutely no pleasure? Jennifer Breheny Wallace would say that’s where game theory comes in. Wallace has found instances where game theorists have developed strategies for parents to convince their kids to do as their told. Using subtle manipulation of the rules (since, after all, the parents ARE in charge) and only a healthy dose of playing their kids against each other, parents can convince their kids that they are winning the “game,” or at least being treated fairly.

In an example where the kid looks like the winner, Wallace tells a story about the father of a picky eater. When he puts a certain healthy food on his child’s plate, the child refuses to eat it. However, if the father puts four healthy foods on his child’s plate and tells him to eat half, the child feels as though he has won because he only had to eat half the healthy food. In the original scenario, one food, the child has two options: eat the food or don’t eat the food. Here, he is picking the lesser of two evils. To child, however, the negative payout of eating the food seems worse than the negative payout of whatever punishment the parent is threatening for not eating the food. In the four-food scenario, the child is given two options: eat two of the foods or risk being forced to eat all four. This is an obvious choice for the child, who would rather eat less healthy foods.

In an example where the parent forces multiple children to cooperate, Wallace gives an example of an ultimatum: at bedtime, the children play rock, paper, scissors to decide who picks the bedtime story. If they don’t all agree on the choice, then no one gets a bedtime story. Here, the child has two options: accept the story choice or rebel. Without the ultimatum, it would make sense for the child to rebel. The positive payout of getting the preferred bedtime story is far greater than the less positive payout of the story chosen. However, with the ultimatum, rebelling risks getting no story at all. In that case, the positive payout of accepting the story outweighs the risk of no payout.

These simple parenting tricks are a fun and interesting way to relate game theory to everyday life. These parenting tricks both help in parenting and in understanding game theory. This field clearly has many applications across the board.


Game Theory Secrets For Parents


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September 2014