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Psychology and Game Theory

A paper published in 2013 posits an interesting theory about the incompatibility of game theory and the unconscious mind, both of which are related in the sense that they both operate on the basis of a fundamental law, a law of “strategic interaction” for the former and a law of “satisfaction” for the latter. The authors propose that these two laws directly oppose each other and that an individual must choose to follow one law or the other. To explain how the unconscious operates on the law of satisfaction, the example of Freudian slips, or the tangible product of the unconscious, is provided. When one produces a Freudian slip, they are revealing an unconscious judgment their mind held back, and therefore they receive the satisfaction of expressing that judgment. As for game theory, the strategic element relies on the assumption that both actors are consciously strategizing. As was mentioned in lecture, game theorists as well as other theorists, such as economists, often operate under the assumption that humans will behave rationally. This assumption disintegrates if the agent is unable to operate consciously.


The really interesting point the authors make is that if all our interactions, whether they be romantic, platonic, casual or formal, were motivated by the need for a state of equilibrium, our lives would be monotonous and unbearable, devoid of surprise and excitement. As they note, Freud considered this description to match that of psychopathological symptoms. The unconscious, they argue, is the mechanism through which we can think and make judgments in the most individual sense. Therefore, we can not follow both the law of satisfaction and the law of strategic interaction, for the former requires individual decision concerning individual experience and the latter relies on probabilistic determination. This comparison is not effortlessly understood, but it does provide interesting insight into the existence of a relationship between psychology and game theory. As those in the course know, the topics which we have covered have applications in multiple fields such as economics, computer science, information sciences and sociology, but their relevance spans more fields than just these.


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