Game Theory in Conversations

Think back to a time when you were having a conversation with someone – could be a friend, partner, colleague, or family member. Do you remember what it was like? I know it’s a random and odd question. Bear with me for a moment and really try to take yourself back into that conversation and relive it. Was it an easy conversation? Did that person make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? What were you talking about? Was it a topic you were excited about or you were dreading? When you told that person your thoughts on that particular topic, did they react the way you expected? What did they say? What did you expect that person to say? How did you feel if and when what they said was not what you expected?


Here’s a dialogue I was part of with a friend the other day:


“These classes are pretty tiring huh? The double sessions,” I say to him.

“Yeah, but he’s pretty interesting and engaging professor,” he replies.


Well, yeah obviously interesting, but not my point. Does he think I’m lazy?


“No for sure, super interesting stuff. Very applicable to the real world too. I can see how this would benefit lots of companies,” I quickly add.


“Yeah definitely. So, what are you up to now? Off to the gym?” he asked.


I want to admit that I’m indeed heading to the gym. But then he already thinks I’m tired from the class, so would it make me a hypocrite? Perhaps mental fatigue and physical fatigue can be separate. If I say no I’m not going to the gym, would he think I’m not disciplined and actually a phoney for how much I preach about fitness? Oh god, what do I say?

“Yeah, I think I need to de-stress a little by lifting some weights. Leg day today!” I blurted out.


Why did I use the word “de-stress”?! Class isn’t even stressful compared to many other aspects of life! Shoot, I’m messing this whole thing up.


I may have exaggerated certain parts of the actual and inner dialogue, but it’s not too far off from how some conversations go. Why is it that we naturally build others’ expectations into our responses? In game theory, players are asked to consider the actions and strategies of opponents before they occur using predictive algorithms (or strategies), in order to choose decisions that optimize their own outcome. The famous Nash Equilibrium shows us how sub-optimal outcomes can occur when a win-lose choice will benefit one player more than a win-win choice.


In order to be sophisticated human beings who are sensitive to other people’s feelings, their perceptions of us, and the general “vibe” of the conversation, we often play the conversation game like economists. The more that’s at stake (e.g., in a job interview, meeting with your boss, making an impression on a first date), the more inclined we are to play this game strategically. It’s exhausting and not very genuine, if you really think about it.


The takeaway from this story is not necessarily to just “show your cards” every time. That would be unwise, especially in those aforementioned high stakes setups. However, in more mundane scenarios, where it may not be necessary to treat every statement or response as a chess move, simplifying the motives and intentions of spoken words may be a great opportunity to reduce inner and inter-personal tension and misunderstanding.

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