Parenting: Fun and Games

Parenting: Fun and Games

Kevin Zollman's take on parenting can raise some eyebrows.

When the Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of philosophy discusses communication between adults and their children, his approach is guided by years of studying game theory, a field of study that delves into strategic decision-making.

His research points in one direction: "You're always in a negotiation with your kids."

Zollman knows that answer is likely to rumple some feathers, but as he's quick to point out, he frames the question differently than most parents.

"This idea that there's this dichotomy between creating incentives and just commanding is wrong," Zollman said. "We're always creating incentives, we're never forcing someone to do something."

As in any negotiation, the key is to understand the person sitting across from you and the situation.

"The critical reasoning for you to do is not about what you want," Zollman said. "That's important, but it's also important to think about what the other person actually wants."

The lessons of the field may once have been confined to the writings of Nobel Prize winning economists and political leaders, but Zollman said parents who think like game theorists can gain an edge in any negotiation, whether they are hammering out the details of a major merger at work or setting a bedtime at home.

Take a situation every parent has likely faced, the picky eater scenario. Zollman borrows from research in decision science to come up with an unorthodox solution: think like a late night commercial director.

"They say 'You want to buy this thing? It's not gonna cost you $60, it's not gonna cost you $40, it's gonna cost you $30,'" Zollman said. "But why do they tell you all the things it's not gonna cost you?"

A good late night commercial director wants to elevate, and then undercut, your expectations, Zollman said. When seated across the bargaining/dinner table from the pickiest of eaters, parents can use a similar type of logic.

"If you give the child three foods, two of which she hates, and especially if you show them to them in an order from the one they hate the most to the one they hate the least — eww there's the broccoli, eww there's the carrots, okay I'll eat the kale — they would say ooh, I can eat that," Zollman said.

And that messy room the two children share but neither wants to clean?

Zollman likes to think through that predicament using the folk theorem, a well-known answer to the "prisoner's dilemma." Game theorists use the prisoner's dilemma to model real-world conundrums where two people have an incentive to defect, or punish, one another.

According to the folk theorem, participants who know they will be stuck playing a prisoner's dilemma game over and over with one another are less likely to defect. If you have young children who know they'll be sharing a room for quite a while, but can't decide who needs to clean it up, Zollman has a solution.

"You can create agreements where each person has the power to punish the other," Zollman said. "With roommates, the agreement would go something like this: 'I agree to clean my half of the room today, under the condition that you cleaned your half of the room yesterday.'"

Not only does this divide the work, it enacts a self-enforcing agreement. Each child has an incentive to clean because they know that their brother or sister can punish them for not doing their part. If one child defects and fails to clean, they know they'll find the room even messier tomorrow. As a result, they're more apt to do their part.

It may take some planning and forethought, but Zollman said thinking like a game theorist when navigating relationships can reduce friction and increase your knowledge of what your loved ones care about.

"Often you can find agreements where everybody is happy and everybody gets what they want, and nobody has any incentive to deviate," he said. "That's what I find most interesting and it's one of the things I use most often in interpersonal interactions."

Related Links: Kevin Zollman | Dietrich College | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article | Philosophy Department

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