Behavior by the numbers

October 13, 2005

At first glance, the idea of using mathematics to explain human behavior would seem to have limited applications.

Yes, most people would agree to work harder if there were more money involved. But aside from that, the reasons people do things often seem to have little to do with logic, let alone arithmetic.

Apparently we are wrong, or at least uninformed. For years, a branch of mathematics called game theory has been used to analyze how humans behave when dealing with others.

How important is it? So much so that Thomas C. Schelling, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, was this week awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his many years of work in the field.


Schelling, who shared the prize with Robert J. Aumann, a mathematician at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, first shared his ideas with a large audience in 1960, according to The (Baltimore) Sun.

Schelling's book, "The Strategy of Conflict," looked at how military commanders' actions were shared by the options both sides had.

The idea was expanded to explain why it was unlikely that either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. would launch a first-strike nuclear attack

Because neither side was likely to win a nuclear war, it followed that as long as neither side was capable of prevailing, the stalemate - and the peace - would continue.

Schelling's work includes work on more mundane concerns, such as why people engage in behaviors such as smoking cigarettes and drinking too much, even though they know that such activities put their health at risk.

If this all seems too academic, consider that what is being discussed is situations in which two parties have conflicting positions on the same issue.

For example, most developers want to build the maximum possible number of buildings on their land. Most land-use planners want developments that will fit in with their surroundings, which usually means less than the maximum number of dwellings.

How such arguments get settled without litigation ought to be of concern to every citizen. Thanks to Schelling and Aumann for their attempts to help the rest of us understand more about human conflict and how it might be resolved.

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