Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump and Rational Irrationality

I plan to write a much longer post about Trump's psychology. For now I'll just note a concept from game theory (yes, yes, I suppose I have to include the obligatory "time for some game theory!" joke), which is the concept of "rational irrationality." The idea is simple. In some strategic situations, it is beneficial for your opponent to believe that you are not rational. The classic example is the game of chicken, in which car drivers race directly at each other. If both swerve, then both lose status. If one swerves, then he loses status while the other gains it. If neither swerves... kaboom.

In this game you can benefit by credibly indicating that you are crazy, since the other person will definitely swerve (assuming she is rational!). The difficulty is in the "credibly" part. You can't just say you're crazy, or engage in a few low-cost crazy activities. That could all be a pretense. You actually have to make your adversary believe that you are crazy (or that there is a good likelihood you are crazy), at least at the time the game of chicken is played. (If you are permitted to alter your car, you can also do something like physically removing the steering wheel. Let's ignore this possibility.)

Of course it helps if you really are crazy! Then you don't have to come up with some elaborate ruse to fool your opponent, you can just be yourself.  And Trump is unquestionably crazy, in the sense of not behaving at all like a rational player. In fact I think we can say that irrationality is one of his two defining features (the other being an almost supernatural facility with the language of racial resentment).

To give a real-world example, during the Obama administration the Republicans said they were prepared to cause the United States to default on its debt rather than vote to increase the debt ceiling. If this had been a credible threat—if the Republicans as a group had really been prepared to do this—then Obama would have been put in an extremely difficult position. Of course he could decline to reward them for their irresponsibility, but only by incurring tremendous risks and costs. Luckily, in reality the threat was never very credible, and so Obama got the debt ceiling raised without defunding Obamacare or whatever it was the Republicans demanded.

Okay so anyway, here's the thing about the "being crazy" approach to winning. It works for some games but not others! If you happen to be playing chicken, you might do very well. But if you are playing, say, chess, it would help to have some capacity for rational thought, some ability to see three or four moves ahead. Rationality has some real upsides!

Now consider Trump's firing of Comey. The way Trump went about it was so slapdash and idiotic that it did a tremendous amount of harm to his standing and the standing of his congressional allies. It was a classic "unforced error" that a strategically competent player wouldn't make. (The firing itself may not have been a mistake, but it's difficult to see any advantage that Trump derived from conducting it the way he did.)

Anyway all of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think Trump is an idiot with idiotic advisors, and while this is often a serious impediment to his agenda, it will play out differently in different situations. The Democrats should be on guard against strategic situations that reward irrationality or unpredictability. (That said, by all indications Trump is an obvious bluffer who wouldn't actually be good at a "chicken" type situation. But there are many other games where his ignorance and psychological weaknesses might serve him well.)


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