It Takes One to Know One

A point that is worthy of reiteration is that a strategy – or a course of action aimed at achieving a goal or an objective – is defined and shaped by the “moves” employed by a strategic entity or person. In turn, a “nonzero sum game” – which is the prevalent type of game found in situations of cooperation and conflict – is overarched by two moves in particular, namely, a “commitment” on one hand and a “threat” on the other hand.

A “commitment” is strategic in the sense that it can limit the moves which can potentially be made by the opposite side. Although a commitment – in order to be carried out – is still contingent upon the moves of the opposite side, a commitment is nevertheless a strategic move intended on affecting the moves of the opposite side. As Thomas Schelling wrote: “The commitment is a strategic move, a move that induces the other player to choose in one’s favor. It constrains the other player’s choice by affecting his expectations.”

Coincidentally, threats are also a means of constraining the behavior of the other players. Thus, the irony is that a threat is actually a commitment in a certain sense. But obviously, there is a fundamental difference between a commitment and a threat, even though both ironically are means of constraining the behavior of the opposite side. As Thomas Schelling wrote:

“The threat differs from the ordinary commitment, however, in that it makes one’s course of action conditional on what the other player does. While the commitment fixes one’s course of action, the threat fixes a course of reaction, of response to the other player. The commitment is a means of gaining first move in a game in which first move carries an advantage; the threat is a commitment to a strategy for a second move.”

Also, it is important to note that “the threatener does not demand, on pain of mutual damage, a particular outcome but only some outcome in the efficient range.” Promises are also a form of commitment. But promises cannot ensure enforcement or trust between the parties which enter into a promise. However, promises are more likely to be enforceable when a party can “identify” another party by which a promise can be made enforceable or trustworthy. Being able to “identify” a party with which a promise can be made enforceable or trustworthy requires knowing something about the character, psychological makeup, and value system of the other party. Schelling also hinted that “identification” can be a double-edged sword, in the sense that “identification” can be used either for exploitation or mutual benefit.

“Delegation” – or the relinquishing of decision-making powers in order to avoid bad outcomes – is yet another move that is often employed by strategic entities or persons. Schelling also mentioned the role of a mediator, whose role is defined more by finding a “focal point” aimed towards fostering an agreement between two conflicting parties more than anything else. Also, strategy is shaped by a broader “communication structure” which renders communication between two players as either “asymmetric” or “symmetric.” Thus, the goal of communication is “having a bear by the tail” so that the other side cooperates. Nor is it necessarily clear where the advantage lies in the asymmetry. In sum:

“If the essence of a game of strategy is the dependence of each person’s proper choice of action on what he expects the other to do, it may be useful to define a ‘strategic move’ as follows: A strategic move is one that influences the other person’s choice, in a manner favorable to one’s self, by affecting the other person’s expectations on how one’s self will behave. One constrains the partner’s choice by constraining one’s own behavior. The object is to set up for one’s self and communicate persuasively to the other player a mode of behavior (including conditional responses to the other’s behavior) that leaves the other a simple maximization problem whose solution for him is the optimum for one’s self, and to destroy the other’s ability to do the same.”

Moreover, the ability of “having a bear by the tail” does not necessarily entail deception and lies. As Schelling argued: “In the mixed-motive game, one is interested in conveying the truth about his own behavior – if, indeed, he had succeeded in constraining his own behavior along lines that, when anticipated, win.” And while acting first is disadvantageous in a zero-sum game, acting first in a mixed-motive game, according to Schelling, is advantageous.

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