Researchers at Play: Game Theory, Polarisation and Bubbles

game theory

A question for you.

What is game theory, and what do we mean when we talk about ‘polarisation’ and ‘bubbles’? 

We know that some of you will be nodding your heads silently in perfect understanding of that question, but for the rest of you… just know that the answer doesn’t have a lot to do with Nintendo, Snakes and Ladders, or blowing into a thin film of washing-up liquid. Well, as far as we know, that is.

No, game theory is something altogether more complicated and interesting. Inspired by our recent chat with Cambridge mathematician Dr Charles Roddie, we decided that we had to take a dive into this fascinating field. Dr Charles was particularly excited by the concepts of social bubbles and polarisation and, well, if it’s good enough for the doctor, then it’s good enough for us. So let’s get going and see if we can learn something about the nature of conflict – a skill that is just occasionally needed in academia.

What Is Game Theory?

We’ll let Dr Charles have the first word here –

“Well, it’s a very general field which looks at the actions people take in situations where their choices and their incentives are interacting. So how do people and organisations manage situations where they are acting together, where their choices are interacting and where they have similar or conflicting incentives.”

The key here is incentives. As individuals, we have all sorts of incentives in mind when we undertake any particular activity. For example, imagine excitedly submitting a paper to a journal for publishing. In this instance, your incentive, or objective, is clear – you want to have the paper published. However, the incentives of those who will read your paper and make the decision on publishing are likely to be very different from your own. Perhaps this clash of incentives will lead to a favourable outcome for both of you, for one of you, or just possibly, for neither.

Game theory works by modelling conflicts like the one above, carefully considering the incentives of each ‘player’ and their interactions with those of others. And by the way, those players don’t have to be individuals (or indeed human). A player could be a group of people with similar interests. It could be a business competing with several others. It could be a country sat at the negotiating table for a bout of international relations. It could even be a predator, like a wolf, locked in a deadly relationship with its prey, or trees in a forest growing in a particular direction due to environmental changes.

For a good general overview of game theory as a field, check out this paper.

By taking into account the various incentives of all the players involved in any of these situations, game theory can produce models that provide possible (and even likely) outcomes. Why is this useful? Because there are all sorts of instances where scientists, economists or mathematicians might want to test possible solutions to a problem before being able to implement them in reality. In one sense, game theory is like a very finely calibrated ‘what if?’ machine, and this makes it ideal for seeking potential solutions to widespread social conflicts.

Polarisation and Social Bubbles

So what are some of those social conflicts? One example is polarisation of opinion over climate change. This particular conflict, as you might have noticed, involves many different players, and a startling array of different incentives. Can game theory produce a harmonious solution? One professor’s research led him to conclude that better communication of climate data in the first place might do something to ease the problem of polarisation.

It was this question of polarisation that so intrigued Dr Charles in our interview, and led him onto the subject of social bubbles:

“What are the dynamics of polarisation, which we’re seeing so much of these days? It’s a massively important topic. People aren’t just in bubbles that exist, but these bubbles are strengthened by the incentives to appeal to, and get approval from, similar people. So, ‘what are the dynamics of bubbles?’ I think is such an important question for the modern world. Because these bubbles are so limiting to the process of thought – the process of you gaining knowledge and objectivity.”

Social bubbles exist everywhere, but are frequently intensified by social media, which allows close-knit groups to form around specific, often political, ideologies. These ideologies could be at either end of the political spectrum – the point is that once formed, such ideological bubbles become surprisingly difficult to pop. Indeed, they seem to become armoured bubbles. Opinions and information that don’t confirm the bubble’s existing viewpoint find it impossible to penetrate.

So, how can a discussion move forward when it’s being held by two or more impenetrable social bubbles?

These are exactly the kind of stalemate situations that game theory is fascinated with. Take a look at the work of Eckehard Olbrich, physicist with the ODYCCEUS project, for some interesting views on exactly how these online conflicts are working.

Bubbles in Academia? Surely Not…

All of this got us thinking. Where can we observe the existence of bubbles in the academic world? Well, the answer, we think, is everywhere. Think of two competing theories within just one subject, say biology. One group adheres to one theory explaining some pocket of evolutionary history, a second group, an alternative theory. Imagine the number of words and publications spent on efforts to resolve this conflict. 

Then think of biology itself as a bubble, in potential competition with other subject bubbles, like philosophy or physics. How often do two of these bubbles drift into each other? Is one particularly interested in the other? Is it in fact impenetrable to research that doesn’t confirm its own ideologies?

Finally, isn’t academia itself, made up of all of these different subjects, another bubble within the workings of society? Is it sometimes deaf to the outside world? And does it sometimes entrench itself against the rest of the world (which may occasionally, we admit, have absolutely no idea what any of us are talking about?).

Final Thoughts

We here at Audemic are fascinated with these kinds of questions and, as always, we want to know what you think. Is academia really made up of bubbles? What can we do to make sure this wonderful world of learning doesn’t close itself off from the rest of society?

Let us know what you think, and…

Keep striving, researchers! ✨

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