The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Random House, 248 pp, $27.
Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err Is Human by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan.
The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life by Len Fisher. Basic Books,
246 pp, $22.95.
All of us have asked ourselves: "Why do other people often make such odd decisions?" The more honest among us go on to ask: "Why do I often make such odd decisions?" Freud was once thought to have some answers, but Freudian theory is now in deep eclipse. Currently, three of the foremost contenders for success in explaining our species' folly and weirdness are game theory, complexity theory, and evolutionary psychology. Each of these three lively and well-written books offers an introduction to one of those new approaches to human strangeness.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's The Predictioneer's Game is a profoundly irritating book. This, I hasten to say, has nothing to do with the book's quality. It is full of stimulating examples and clear explanations. Nor is it the author's personality: Bueno de Mesquita is genial and - even though most of the book's case studies tell of the triumphs of his consulting company - not at all self-important. But he has done the (to me) unforgivable: he has challenged one of my cherished beliefs. I am a moralist; and he suggests, with distressing plausibility, that moralists are superfluous.
The author is an expert practitioner of game theory. Faced with any problem - Bueno de Mesquita's assignments have included getting a corporate client off a legal hook; helping a retiring CEO engineer the selection of a successor; predicting the outcome of the Oslo negotiations between Israel and the PLO; picking the next Chinese or Pakistani head of state; persuading the North Koreans to eliminate their nuclear weapons; saving the earth from global warming - the game theorist asks four questions. Who has an interest in the decision? What outcome does each of these people want? How important is it to each of them? How much influence can each one exert? Each of these questions is given a numerical answer, the numbers are plugged into an algorithm, then fed into a computer, and the result, however counterintuitive, is what will happen.
The game theorist does not and must not ask: What should happen? The premise of game theory is that "people won't cooperate or coordinate with each other unless it is in their individual interest. No one in the game-theory world willingly takes a personal hit just to help someone out ... we're [all] looking out for numero uno." Generosity, solidarity, self-sacrifice - not to mention an overmastering passion for beauty - do not seem to exist in the "game-theory world." Presumably they would queer the algorithms.
The algorithms seem to work, though. Bueno de Mesquita claims an astonishing success rate for his predictions and negotiating strategies, and I believe him. Perhaps we idealists should bite the bullet, pool our pennies, and hire him to figure out how to give humanity's moral evolution a nudge.
Game theory fits neatly into classical economic theory, with its axioms of rational choice, utility maximization, and homo economicus. Evolutionary psychology has complicated this picture. "Classical economics," Michael and Ellen Kaplan write in Bozo Sapiens, "has left out the concept of the norm : the social constraints that keep us from acting any old how. Even in aggregate, people have assumptions about the right way to behave - assumptions not purely rational." In a "social enterprise" - and what isn't? - "notions like fairness and purpose can skew the calculations of utility." There is, it appears, something the Kaplans call "strong rationality: an intrinsic human willingness to sacrifice personal advantage in order to reward the kind and punish the unkind. It is, and probably always has been, the force that makes informal economic life possible." Hmm ... maybe we moralists aren't completely useless after all.
But although Bozo Sapiens gives us humans credit for at least some right feeling, it is pretty hard on our frequent failures of right thinking. "Error is pervasive: it seeps into thought, word, and deed," they observe; and in response they offer a compendium of common fallacies that picks up where Aristotle's celebrated handbook On Sophistical Refutations leaves off. Thanks to evolutionary theory, though, they can do more than scold and shake their heads over the perennial spectacle of "basic stupidity." They can, with tact and humor, go some way toward explaining it.
Len Fisher's The Perfect Swarm doesn't worry much about human selfishness or human stupidity. In fact, it doesn't seem at first to be much concerned with humans at all. But after reviewing some fascinating research about the group activities of ants, bees, and locusts, Fisher makes intriguing connections to the behavior of human crowds, using a new branch of mathematics called "complexity theory." A final chapter, "Simple Rules for a Complex World," demonstrates that statistics don't always lie, and sometimes even tell important truths.