A mathematical approach to Syria
Game theory suggests we should seek the least worst option.
A rebel fighter takes aim at regime forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
(Louai Abo Al-
By K.C. Cole
September 23, 2013
A mathematical solution in Syria? That's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, the working compromise is a classic case of the power of game theory, a branch of mathematics that analyzes the best possible outcomes in conflicts where neither side knows what the other will do. It's not about winning as much as it is finding the least worst option, which is precisely what Presidents Obama, Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad and company have done.
No one gets exactly what he wants. But no one loses everything either.
In its simplest form, the Syrian standoff was a classic game of "chicken," the game played by James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" when he was challenged by a bully named Buzz to race stolen cars to the edge of a cliff. Whoever bails first becomes the "chickie" and loses face. Dean's character, Jim, jumps at the last minute, but Buzz's jacket gets snagged on the door and he plunges to his death. Game over.
The least worst solution would have been for both players to swallow their pride and jump early. The winner gets to gloat. But even the loser gets to play another day.
Over the long term, a willingness to take less than everything is a winning strategy.
One reason is that winner-
Lasting solutions require coming to an equilibrium in which all players feel they did well enough, given the circumstances. And game theory is all about finding equilibriums.
Such calculations apply to much more than Syria. We do the same sort of mental math when we stop at red lights instead of barreling through at our pleasure (road rage is the primitive brain's business). Whether we're paying taxes or tipping waiters, we often do things that are not, from a selfish point of view, ideal — but that we know are necessary to keep society going. In other words, the least worst option.
When we insist on winner-
Stability requires not just a measure of fairness but also the perception of fairness.
Even a monkey will turn down a treat if it sees its neighbor get something far more
delicious. (In fact, the monkey feeling cheated will throw the second-
Attaining a least worst solution, in other words, requires that both sides be prepared to live with less than they ideally want; if one side feels it's getting both the least and the worst, there's no point in even playing. Any monkey could tell us that.
The situation in Syria, of course, is horrendously complicated, with multiple players with unknown aims and abilities, and multiple options and possible outcomes.
Whether or not turning over Syria's chemical weapons to the United Nations works, the present pause in the stalemate gives everyone time to think things through. Losing some face is worth it if you can return to play another day — perhaps at a game that plays more to your strengths.
K.C. Cole, a journalism professor at USC and a former science writer for The Times, is the author of "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium."