Game Theory & General Semantics, or The Strategy of Conflict II: General Semantics Edition!


In 1960, game theory formulator Thomas Schelling (later to win a Nobel Prize in Economics), published The Strategy of Conflict.  For me, when I read the book in the early Naughts, I was dumbstruck by his concept of conflict (pg. 5):

To study the strategy of conflict is to take the view that most conflict situations are bargaining situations.

This sentence had an awesome impact on me at the time.  At the time, I was trying to remedy how that in improv class, conflict is taught to be avoided, which generally seems to be good advice, but conflict can creep into performance improv and be totally fine.  The question was essentially, How was the good conflict created?  My answer was in Schelling: Treat it as a bargaining situation.

It would seem to me that the typical, perhaps innate conceptualization of conflict is as a fight.  When a typical person detects a situation he processes as conflict, he starts fighting.  Through education to the contrary, people learn different ways to handle conflict.  Schelling offers one way.  His way takes the parties in conflict from disagreement to agreement.

And at the moment the other day when I realized that, I realized that general semantics offers its own conceptualization of conflict.  That is, that’s probably what could be termed as a conflict in general semantics: A disagreement.  What ensues when a conflict is detected after a general semantics education is that the person starts to seek agreement.

Seeing a conflict as a disagreement does not make it logical to seek agreement.  Just as in the typical, “innate” conceptualization of conflict the object is to fight, in the conceptualization of conflict as disagreement the object probably seems to disagree.  For the object the conceptualization of conflict as a bargaining situation brings, in comes the seeking of agreement, because that’s presumably what a person does in a bargaining situation: ultimately seeks agreement.  There can be selfish motives in that pursuit, and the desire to gain an edge in the bargaining situation, but it’s a step toward totally re-conceptualizing conflict away from more brutal concepts that lead to brutal outcomes.

The conceptualization of conflict as a bargaining situation typically implies some sort of disagreement.  Schelling points out that there is no conflict in a few games (he talks about models of behavior commonly known as “games” in analyzing conflict), and that the bargaining is one of pure coordination between the two parties.  (Think of two paratroopers landing in different places with no ability to communicate but the goal of rendezvousing.  How do they unite?  Where to do the meet?)  In situations of pure coordination, the disagreement is somewhat impersonal rather than personal.  But conflicts (disagreements) involving no conflict and pure coordination only are few, at least in the field of analyzing conflicts.

But the conceptualization of conflict as a bargaining situation nearly explicates the goal in conflict as reaching some sort of agreement.  Schelling’s is just as much a moral or even ethical philosophy of conflict as the object of fighting and the goal of domination are.  Schelling’s is one presumably more fruitful for society, though.  A society ruled by a conceptualization of conflict as a boxing match ends up with a bruised, hurt, injured, and murderous society.  A society ruled by conceptualization of conflict as a bargaining situation probably doesn’t end up with this kind of outcome nearly as often, and instead generally ends up with a relatively healthier, less pained, more functioning, and more respectful population.  This is not to say that bargaining situations never involve punching (they can!), but it is to say that that’s less often the rule and more often just one option of many.  If the goal is a more fruitful society, the choice between these two philosophies of conflict is pretty simple.

Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict tends to fall under the category of game theory.  General semantics had a sizeable impact on one prominent game theorist: Anatol Rapoport.  Anatol Rapoport was a prolific author of both books on general semantics and books on game theory.  He has the notoriety of winning the two rounds of games sponsored by Robert Axelrod and documented in Axelrod’s famous and engaging book The Evolution of Cooperation.  Anatol Rapoport is not the first game theory formulator–that acclaim goes to John Von Neumann and a bit less to Oskar Morgenstern, who co-wrote and published Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944.  But given that year, and its falling after the 1933 publication of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, one wonders what effect, if any, general semantics had on game theory.  As I first understand it, game theory was at first mathematical, but its applications were most visible in conflict analysis and conflict strategy.  That is, conflicts began being conceptualized as games, maybe not right when Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s book came out, but more so at some point after.

In recent days since seeing conflicts as disagreements, I’ve consciously restated myself whenever I’ve described something as “a conflict”: I’ve rephrased and called it “a disagreement.”  Doing this for myself made it easier for me to see that it was an agreement that I would need to seek.  Seeing the “conflict” as “a bargaining situation” would offer similar niceness, but seeing it as “a disagreement” makes it easier for me to see the agreement-disagreement component.  That is, the term “bargaining situation” doesn’t explicitly contain the words “agreement” or “disagreement” so they’re not necessarily brought to mind when seeing “conflict” as “a bargaining situation.”

But it should be noted here the choice involved.  I choose to see a conflict as a disagreement.  Another person chooses to see a conflict as a boxing match.  Another person chooses to see it as a bargaining situation.  Another person chooses to see it as a contest.  Etc.  People who conceptualize may not realize they have a choice in how they conceptualize.  They don’t question the concepts that come to them.  This may be okay, but it may also be punishing.  A society that doesn’t question its barbaric concept of conflict is likely a society that will be ruled by barbarism.  At least until the concept of conflict is reshaped by education in the heads of the people left standing.

It would be interesting to trace the interaction of general semantics thinking and game theory thinking.  Anatol Rapoport may be the key player in that interaction.  Who knows.  Who cares?  Maybe I do.  Stay tuned …

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