Head games: why talking about epistemic game theory with non-experts is surprisingly easy… and a lot of fun

Ever since my childhood, I have been fascinated by how we humans think. In that light, working on epistemic game theory feels like the ideal playground to me, since in that field we really study how people think. More specifically, we explore how people reason before they choose, especially when there are other people around whose decisions can affect you as much as your own choices. In situations such as this, it becomes important to take the perspective of the other person in order to guess what that person would do. This ability to reason about the minds of other people is called “theory of mind”, and distinguishes us human beings from most other species on this planet.

At first sight, this “reasoning about others” may seem a bit exotic, but in fact we do it every day. If you bargain with your friend about where to go on holiday, you probably try to take the friend’s perspective to predict how he or she will react to your proposal. These kind of situations occur on a daily basis, not only on a professional level but especially in everyday life. And that is what makes epistemic game theory so attractive – it is really about a type of reasoning we use every day, either consciously or subconsciously.

Many people imagine it must be very difficult to explain the principles of epistemic game theory to “people on the street”. Well, I can tell from my own experience that this is absolutely not the case. Some years ago, I gave a presentation to a very broad audience at Studium Generale here in Maastricht, where I discussed the main ideas from epistemic game theory. It was easy to find examples from everyday life that the people in the audience could relate to, and where they had to take the perspective of the other person before making a choice, very much like the holiday example above. Since people could identify with the examples, it became rather easy for them to grasp the message of epistemic game theory. They realised that the type of reasoning being explored is something they use themselves.

I had a similar experience just two weeks ago at a Science Café Nijmegen event. The theme of that evening was “How do we choose?”, and I was invited to talk, in front of a very broad non-academic audience, about epistemic game theory. Once again, the people in attendance quickly understood the idea of taking the other person’s perspective.

Although as an academic my day-to-day work naturally focuses on research and “traditional” education (from teaching undergraduate and master’s students during the year to being part of the two-week EPICENTER Spring Course in Epistemic Game Theory), there’s always something rather special about giving non-traditional, and supposedly non-essential, public lectures.

In September, I will speak at the PAS Festival in Maastricht, and I am willing to bet that I will experience all over again that wonderful feeling when a general, non-academic audience understands the main message of your research.

Andrés Perea is associate professor in the Department of Quantitative Economics, School of Business and Economics, Maastricht University, and a member of EpiCenter. He will speak at the PAS Festival 2018 on Saturday 8 September 2018.