Episode 002: Why Campaigns Go Negative: An Intro to Game Theory

In this podcast we discuss:

  • What a ‘Game’ is, mathematically
  • Some areas where games apply to real life (most of them!)
  • How game theory is applied in biology
  • The Prisoners Dilemma game, and
  • Why all political campaigns go negative

For more about game theory, a great resource is GameTheory.net.  And I’ll be posting a series of articles on my blog introducing game theory in politics and biology over the next few months.


I’ve got two things to apologize for.  First, that it’s taken so long to get this second episode on the web.  After we posted the last one, we were heading right into the last weeks of the term, and lord knows how that goes.

The second thing is that this episode had some technical difficulties.  There is some clipping here and there, and some chucks had to be removed (sorry if that breaks the flow).

At the end of the episode, I’ve appended a short discussion of the Nash Equilibrium in Game Theory.  We’d actually had a section on that within the podcast, but it was too messed up to use.  So, I cut that whole chunk out and we redid it, and added at the end.

Author: Nick Horton

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  1. Hi, I’m writing a math book for adult self-learners. I was so inspired by Tom’s “Punk Math” book idea and success at Kickstarter that I thought I need to be similarly visceral in my sensitivity, so I’m starting “Gospel Math” http://www.gospelmath.com I’m listening to your podcasts to see what you’ve done and I hope to be in touch.

    My political science professor Michael Gillespie gave a rational reason why people should or should not vote. It is that in a mature democracy it matters less Who wins, and more by what Mandate. Which is to say, if you win by a landslide, your position is much stronger and you have much more leeway than if you win by the tip of your nose. You can afford to alienate that many more people. So with regard to the size of the Mandate, every vote is worth exactly that – one vote.

    In a mature democracy, the people have more allegiance to the system than to either party. Otherwise, there can be only one election, as game theory suggests, because the party in power would usurp power.

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  2. Re: Why people vote:
    Well, I’m no expert, but imo I think the payoff for casting your seemingly insignificant vote is really personal satisfaction. People like to feel like they’ve been “heard”. While it’s true that mathematically their vote is really quite a small factor, they still feel they have done what they can to influence the outcome. I think it’s similar to the Lottery. While your odds of winning are astronomical, you know your guaranteed not to win if you don’t play. So buying that ticket gives you a tiny spark of hope that your ticket may be The One. Or back to voting, that your ballot will tip the scale. I don’t think the average person is looking at the odds – or even the final outcome, as I’m sure you’ve heard, ‘well, I voted, so I have the right to bitch’ – but rather the greater portion of the payoff is actually not connected to the outcome, but is the internal/psychological of having ‘done something’. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts if there is something I’m not considering, or being naive about here.

    Dig these podcasts, keep it up. :)

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