Leaps of faith keep us stable

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Sylvia Nasar's award-winning book A Beautiful Mind, and the hit movie of the same name, aroused interest in the mathematician behind the story, John Nash. One of Nash's major contributions, game theory, has long found use in economics and business.

Game theory is based on the science of strategy, taking the principles of threat and deception involved in games such as poker and applying them to the real world. At its heart is the idea that, before making a move, players have to anticipate how others might respond.

Events at work often unfold like games. For example, understanding the concept of sacrifice in chess - that is, giving up pieces either to win them back or to checkmate the king - is good preparation for accepting short-term defeat to achieve a long-term goal. Teachers often make sacrifices, but with no clear strategy as to what they will bring them in the future. Understanding the power of sacrifice in chess leads to a different view of sacrifice at work: that it must be specifically targeted for it to be useful.

In fact, sacrifices that are not targeted end up weakening you and aiding your opponent. Chess is different from poker, as all the pieces are visible. You cannot use subterfuge, unlike poker where, because your opponents' cards are hidden, uncertainty creeps in.

For teachers to become better game players they must learn Theory of Mind (ToM), the branch of psychology specialising in how people work out what is going on in the minds of others. "First order" ToM is the ability to work out what is going on in your own mind; "second order" calculates what is going in other people's, while "third order" tries to work out what they're thinking about what you're thinking. Expert game players move in the realm of the third order, while the rest of us scrabble around in the first and second orders.

One story in ToM circles illustrates the power of the third order. In the 1840s, on the slow boat from California to the East Coast, miners who had struck lucky whiled away the time playing poker with their gold dust.

During one hand, a player kept four cards and drew one, but just as it was dealt to him he caught a glimpse of it before the wind blew it overboard.

Immediately he dived into the sea, swam to the card, and was fished out of the water clutching it close to his chest. Returning to the poker table he bet all he had left of his gold dust. The other players folded, assuming his final card completed a great hand - why else risk drowning? It turned out he held four clubs and one very wet diamond; he had bluffed successfully.

Crucially, he won not because he knew more about cards, but because he predicted how other players would interpret his act of diving after the fifth card. His opponents failed to think this might be why he had dived after the card in the first place.

Although the term "playing games" is often used negatively, teachers'

stressful lives could be improved if they redefined their working conditions as games with rules and outcomes.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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