This post is taken from a piece by Paul Raebun and Kevin Zollman titled “No more drama: The game theory guide to a happy family holiday” in the 17 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist. This piece asks the question how do we encourage our families to behave themselves in a way that reflects how, deep down, they truly love each other? The answer, turn to game theory, the science of strategic thinking.
If there needs to be a decision of who will host, you can draw straws. If there are three choices you can use a Borda count: Each person ranks their preferences, the numbers are added, and the host with the lowest score wins.
What about the question as to who is going to bring which dish. As the authors note many people have delicious alternatives they would love to provide, but no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings, so those under appreciated dishes are lightly touched. So frames can be switched regarding the dishes. For example, seize on a change of time or venue. Then say, for instance, “Since we’re at Dad’s house this year, let’s change dishes.”
It is recommended that political discussion be off limits, so the squabble will probably be over who gets the last roast potatoes or the final sliver of something else. To keep bickering to a minimum, game theorists recommend using I cut, you pick. If there are two people hankering after the last of the yule log, one slices and the other chooses.
A common problem is that there is too much food and people are begged to take home leftovers. Everyone brings way too much food because of the incentives. There’s no real penalty for bringing an excessive amount, but somebody might be offended if they bring too little. So change the incentives. Give a prize to the cook whose dish is totally gone, or make the guest with the most leftovers host next time. Now it’s not a measure of love, it’s a game.
What about unruly children misbehaving? To stop their misbehavior, there needs to be a credible threat. A simple warning might not be credible. However, a threat to make the children do the dishes will likely be credible and effective.
What to do about a guest who does not pitch in and help out? You can put empirical expectations to make him work. Make a point of having someone clean up around him so can see them doing it. He just might feel obliged to pitch in.
What about arguments as to what game to play? Propose an auction by having the opposing camps bargain by offering to do chores. Whoever makes the best offer—finish washing the dishes and tidy up the kitchen—gets to pick.
Don’t forget the ultimatum game. How should two kids with a small box of chocolates divvy up the candy? Ask one to keep some for herself and offer the rest to the other. If the second party should regard the offer as unfair, then neither one gets any of the chocolates.
The authors, Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman have both written and are splitting credit for their book, “The Game Theorists Guide to Parenting.” Perhaps this might be a Christmas gift for someone.