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I am an economics major at Yale and would be very skeptical of a game theory course that deviated too far from the theory of winning at multi-party interactions (game theory) and dealt extensively with the theory of winning in general (rationality). Such a class would almost certainly seem too preachy or too close to the genre of self-help. You, as a professor of the field, would obviously know better than me what areas of rationality or general strategy are traditionally included in the field of game theory -- but I would be very surprised if most of the above links, the bulk of which deal with the optimization of one's time, one's goals, or one's beliefs, would fit well into most Game Theory courses.

This is not to say that I necessarily oppose the practice of using a course title to mislead students about its contents -- rather, I am afraid that exhortations of rationality will fall flat on students who came to learn about Nash Equilibria and think you're trying to tell them how to best live their lives using methods and models beyond the scope of the course.

Here is the course description:

"An examination of how rational people cooperate and compete. Game theory explores situations in which everyone's actions affect everyone else, and everyone knows this and takes it into account when determining their own actions. Business, military and dating strategies will be examined."

When teaching economics I strive to relate all the material to my students' lives and concerns, rather than the type of abstract mathematical concepts that often capture economists' interests.

I agree with sakranut. The posts you listed don't seem related to game theory concepts, so they would be new material, not illustrations to existing material. IMO if you add something to the course, it should be taken from published scientific work. Why not use Kahneman and Tversky's research on heuristics and biases?

"Why not use Kahneman and Tversky's research on heuristics and biases?"

This stuff is a lot harder to read so I would have to assign much less of it than if I go with stuff written for a general audience. I almost never assign academic articles.

Maybe I'm misjudging the audience. What kind of stuff do you usually assign?

The standard definition of "rationality" in economics is "having complete and transitive preferences", and sometimes "having complete and transitive preferences and adhering to the von Neumann-Morgenstern axioms". Not the way it's used on Less Wrong.

I think the really cool thing about game theory is how far you can go by stating the form of a game and deriving what someone will do, or the possible paths they may take, assuming only that they have rational preferences.

Making sure that students know what definition is being used is very important. Although to be pedantic, there are assumptions beyond just assuming rational inference, such as recursive metaknowledge (all players know all public knowledge, everyone knows that everyone knows, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, etc.), that are used in game theory.

From what I read about straight game theory in interaction with dating strategies, it's often that the model makes a lot of assumptions that are to far of reality for the resulting advice to be useful.

I once read in a game theory book the analysis that a mother shouldn't signal to her child that she loves her to get the child seeking the approval of the mother and not doing things like drugs that the mother disapproves of.

Can you point to some insightful writing on the topic that comes to reasonable conclusions?

Here is my article titled Valentine's Day Trap.

And the lesson of the article is: "Your screwed and have to participate in an ineffective social ritual"?

To me it seems like you should look at the value that the emotional value woman receive through the experience of being given flowers. We know that the way to buy happiness is through buying experiences, so I'm not sure whether the average fuzzy of happiness gained through flowers on valentines day is more expensive than other fuzzies.

A conclusion of the article might be to make a plausible precommitment with a high dollar price for violating the precommitment to never buy flowers and display that precommitment publically before you start a relationship. I don't think that will make the woman who doesn't get flowers from her boyfriend when her girlfriend get flowers feels much better.

Your screwed and have to participate in an ineffective social ritual"?


I don't think that will make the woman who doesn't get flowers from her boyfriend when her girlfriend get flowers feels much better.

True, and it will lower her dating market value because men will wonder why her current boyfriend didn't think she was of high enough value to get flowers.

it will lower her dating market value because men will wonder why her current boyfriend didn't think she was of high enough value to get flowers.

I don't think that's easy to say. On the one hand that's information that women generally don't rather her with female friends and other male friends. Secondly I don't think it automatically says something negative about a woman in the eyes of most men. It might signal that the woman isn't a "gold digger" which is generally a positive quality that men seek. Or to switch to another model: Receiving gifts is the least important of the five love languages for a particular woman.

Even it it was perceived as a signal of her boyfriend not being into her, it might signal availability in a way that might encourage a man to hit on her.

Evidence: Women would much rather get flowers delivered to them at work or in a way that causes other people to see them, then to be given the flowers privately. My female students seem to overwhelmingly agree with this statement when we discuss Valentines Day in game theory.

it might signal availability

You don't want to signal this, rather if you are a woman interested in dating a man, you want to signal that you are of high enough quality and in high enough demand that you would just barely consider dating him.

Things might be different in different parts of the world.

I would predict that it's more important for the woman that her female coworker see her receiving the flowers than that her male coworkers see.

Would you predict that it's more important that the male coworkers see it and therefore the woman has higher status in the eyes of potential mates?

You might be right. I will try to remember to ask my students their view when I get to this topic. But the same game theory applies either way where you want to signal your high value to the people around you.

One can argue that it encourages a man to hit on her, not by increasing his valuation of her, but in decreasing what he perceives her being valued at. Rationally, a man should pursue women not on his valuation of her, but on the degree to which he perceives his valuation of her as exceeding others' valuation of her.

Of course, this is a rather cold-hearted way of viewing dating, and Less Wrong is one of the few contexts in which admitting to being aware of this analysis is socially acceptable. For a lot of social interactions, one of the rules is that one not admit that one is aware of the rules.

Newcombe-style problems, including the Prisoner's Dilemma, and the difference between rationality-as-winning and rationality-as-rituals-of-cognition.

Make sure to emphasize that payoffs are in terms of utility, and that when money is used as a payoff, it's meant to be a substitute for utility. This will hopefully prevent people from saying things like "According to game theory, all people care about is money! So game theory is wrong". If your students don't know what utility is, that should be the first thing you teach them, and it may help to give a few reminders over the course of the class.

This is important, but unfortunately for me many of the students will have spent a huge amount of time studying utility whereas many others will have never heard of it so I just end up saying if you know what utility is than the payoffs are utility if not than all you care about in life is getting the highest payoff and the payoff might include stuff other than money.

Precommitment is an interesting aspect of game theory that ties in well with lukeprog's how to beat procrastination.

please cover the difference between precommitment and saying out loud (Or even believing) "I precommit not to succumb to blackmail/let the AI out of the box". This is one of the most common mistakes I've seen, even on LW

I don't think there a difference in kind. It's just that some commitments are stronger than others.

Yep. The most common model that yields a rational agent who will choose to restrict zir own future actions is beta-delta discounting, or time inconsistent preferences. I've had problem sets with such questions, usually involving a student procrastinating on an assignment; I don't think I can copy them, but let me know if you want me to sketch out how such a problem might look.

Actually, maybe the most instrumental-rationality-enhancing topics to cover that have legitimate game theoretic aspects are in behavioral economics. Perhaps you could construct examples where you contrast the behavior of an agent who interprets probabilities in a funny way, as in Prospect Theory, with an agent who obeys the vNM axioms.

Of these, The Planning Fallacy might be vaguely appropriate and to a lesser extent The Map is not the Territory, but with that course description I don't see how the others come even close.


It might be a good idea to cover mechanism design. Perhaps not with all its mathematical rigor, but still, the very idea of influencing outcomes by manipulating the environment agents find themselves in is an important tool in a rationalist's toolbox.

How to be Happy and How to Beat Procrastination seem a bit odd for a game theory course. If you're going to include anything like that then I would frame it as "If you use advice Y then it will result in X" rather than "You should do Y because it will lead to X".

I want to include material on how to be rational

Normally, game theory aims to be a purely descriptive discipline. Are you planning on taking a normative/prescriptive approach towards it?

Yes. I want students to see that game theory has value for decision making.