3 Ways Game Theory Is Bolstering My Relationships in College

3 Ways Game Theory Is Bolstering My Relationships in College
Photo by Andrey Metelev / Unsplash

I'm no longer friends with any of the people from my first semester at college.

I grew up in a small rural town and had the same group of video gamer friends since I was five years old. When I came to college, I had no idea how to form long term intimate friendships.

However, now that I'm in my fourth semester of college, I have formed a diverse friend group built on trust and direct communication.

Surprisingly, Game Theory is one of the things that helped me do this. Game Theory is a branch of mathematics that analyzes strategies in systems with rational human agents. The theory splits social situations into a variety of typical "games," each with its own dilemmas and solutions. Understanding Game Theory has helped me in my relationships for three main reasons:

  1. I See My Relationships As An Infinite Game
  2. I’m Realizing The Importance of Diversity in Friendships
  3. I Understand Directness In Communication Is Essential

1. I See My Relationships As An Infinite Game

Typically colleges are designed to make you compete with other students.

Classes are curved meaning the worse other students do the better you do. There is only so much time and energy to spend with friends. And there are limited spots for research assistantships.

Because of colleges competitive environment, students tend to treat there relationships as finite games.

But treating your relationships as finite is a terrible mistake.

This can be seen through the most popular Game Theory game ever, The Prisoners Dilemma. In the Prisoners Dilemma, two prisoners are taken into an interview room and given a choice: they can either cooperate by not ratting out their partner to the crime, or defect by telling on their partner to the interviewer. If both prisoners cooperate, they both get a short prison sentence. If one defects and one cooperates, the defector gets no prison sentence and the cooperator gets a medium length prison sentence. If they both defect, they both get a long prison sentence.

Defecting is therefore always the best option.

But only if the game is played once.

In another variation the prisoners dilemma is played an infinite number of times with the same players. Suddenly, the best strategy becomes tit for tat, to do whatever your partner did last turn. If both partners are smart, they will always cooperate.

Cooperating every time is the best strategy when you play an infinite number of times with the same player.

The revelation I had in college is that students are playing prisoners dilemmas all the time. Every test, every friendship, every Research assistantship is a prisoners dilemma. In all of these situations there are ways you can defect and ways you can cooperate just like the prisoners dilemma.

The profound difference in my relationships came when I started to treat them like an infinite prisoners dilemma.

I came to every relationship with this mindset.

In effect, I almost always cooperated. Coming at my relationships in this way built an incredible amount of trust. People realized I was looking to build relationships in the long term.

In turn, people genuinely wanted to build friendships with me.

2. I’m Realizing The Importance of Diversity in Friendships

As mentioned earlier, in high school my friend groups was the same since I was five years old.

Of course, I feel incredibly close to these friends even to this day because of it, but it almost made the diversity of my friendships very low.

I was surrounded by others that validated my opinion.

Game theory helped me realize the importance of having diversity in my friendships. In game theory, the more rational agents (people) you know the better understanding you have for the best strategy to play. Applied to relationships, the more diverse your friendships the more ideas you are exposed to. The more ideas you are exposed to the more feedback you get on your ideas.

The more feedback you get on your ideas, the faster you become, not stupid.

Understanding this I created a challenge group in my fourth semester of college. A challenge group is a group of people that challenge your opinions and help them grow. In the short term, your challenge group can make you feel stupid and lost.

But in the long term your challenge group helps you level up your ideas.

I'm a 19 year old Dutch small town born Human Development major. But my friend group is made up of Computer Scientists, Anthropologists, Engineers, Indians, Spanish, College graduates, and even a fifty year old Information Science Major. This strange mix of people forms my challenge group.

And I attribute much of where I have come today to them.

3. I Understand Directness In Communication Is Essential

Without direct communication there is no clear expectations for the relationship and people become scared by uncertainty.

The Game Theory game that exemplifies this is the Coordination Game. The coordination game exists in any situation where you are trying to coordinate something with someone but don't have the opportunity to agree on the time and place of a meeting. This means you have to guess where the other person will guess you are trying to meet. The solution is to have shared knowledge on how to make a choice in the case that you can't coordinate. For example, if you don't have a set meeting place, you meet in X place by default. This way, in the case you don't have the opportunity to agree on the time and place, you will still find a way to meet none the less.

The coordination game is solved with direct communication.

Similarly, in college we are playing coordination games all the time. Where should you meet your friends for dinner? When is everyone free for a movie night? What time and place can you study with your study buddy.

Like in the coordination game, the solution in college relationships is to have direct communication.

When I started bringing more direct communication toward my relationships in college everything changed.

They learned about my values and in turn what I might like to do with them. They got an idea for my schedule and in turn when I was free. They understood what activities I enjoyed and how I liked to allocate my time.

Direct communication took away peoples fear and uncertainty in my relationships.

I'm no longer the socially awkward, introverted, video game addicted kid from my childhood. I have realized the value of forming a diverse friend group built on trust and direct communication. With game theory you can do the same.