Why game theory never will be anything but a footnote​ in the history of social science

27 Mar, 2018 at 11:55 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

Half a century ago there were widespread hopes game theory would provide a unified theory of social science. Today it has become obvious those hopes did not materialize. This ought to come as no surprise. Reductionist and atomistic models of social interaction — such as the ones mainstream economics and game theory are founded on — will never deliver sustainable building blocks for a realist and relevant social science. That is also — as yours truly argues in the latest issue of real-world economics review — the reason why game theory never will be anything but a footnote in the history of social science.

Lars Pålsson Syll_06Heavy use of formalism and mathematics easily foster the view that a theory is scientific. But although game theory may produce ‘absolute truths’ in imaginary model worlds, in the real world the game theoretic models are nothing but — as Rubinstein (2012a) puts it — fables. Fables much reminiscent of the models used in logic, but also like them, delivering very little of value for social sciences trying to explain and understand real-life phenomena. The games that game theory portrays are model constructs, models without significant predictive capacity simply because they do not describe an always much more complex and uncertain reality …

Although some economists consider it useful to apply game theory and use game theoretical definitions, axioms, and theorems and (try to) test if real-world phenomena ‘satisfy’ the axioms and the inferences made from them, we have argued that that view is without warrant. When confronted with the real world we can (hopefully) judge if game theory really tells us if things are as postulated. The final court of appeal for models is the real world, and as long as no convincing justification is put forward for how the inferential bridging de facto is made, model building is little more than hand-waving that give us rather little warrant for making inductive inferences from the model world to the real world.

The real challenge in social science is to accept uncertainty and still try to explain why different kinds of transactions and social interactions take place. Simply conjuring problems away by assuming patently unreal things and treating uncertainty as if it was possible to reduce to stochastic risk, is like playing tennis with the net down. That is not the kind of game that scientists working on constructing a relevant and realist science want to play.


  1. For some reason, don´t ask me why, when i think of Game Theory,the movie Dr. Strangelove pop up in my mind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mUCLHzWiJo

  2. P.S wonderful essay, Lars! Give these Little Neoliberal Gnoms! They deserve it!!

  3. Jo Lars,vi måste gräva riktigt djupt i denna fråga känner jag! Kausaitetets djupmönster måst man ju erkänna.Vi måste ju gå till botten i denna fråga! Definitivt! Något samband
    ju förefinnas,slumpen att de alla samlas på detta möte ,allihop, bör ju utredas! Vi kan ju tillsätta någon ny forskningstjänst för detta outforskade område? Kanske hon som utredde tågstationer osv passar för tjänsten? Därom tvistar de lärde.Beste Jan å gla påsk därutöver!

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