By Shauna Hagan
Have you ever wondered why conversations go wrong? Why your attempt at communication missed its intended target? Is it even possible to measure and calculate the success rate of a conversation? Economists like Georg Weizsacker believe that this is very possible. As a behavioural economist, his research interests include game theory, decision theory and applied microeconomics, which in turn has led to him using game theory to explore why people misunderstand each other. Georg explores this concept in his upcoming title Misunderstandings: False Beliefs in Communication; published and made accessible to scholars everywhere by Open Book Publishers.
What is Game Theory?
Both decision theory and game theory concern the reasoning process underlying people’s choices, that is, how their desires, beliefs, and other attitudes combine in a way that make people choose one option over another. (Stockholm University, 2023). Game theory focuses on the interactions between different decision makers as they try to make the best decision based on their beliefs about what others will choose (Stockholm University, 2023). You could apply this theory when having a conversation with someone. According to Georg Weizsacker, during a conversation, you will consider three things about the speaker as they talk: their actions, their type and their understanding of the state of the world. These three things will also influence how you respond to their statement, and, if both speaker and listener are considered to be rational decision makers in line with game theory, you will both consider how your respective understanding of the other person’s type and knowledge of the state of the world, impacts your chosen actions. Actions include spoken statements and any action that may occur after the conversation has taken place. A person’s type refers to their personality, their disposition at the time of conversation and their personal preferences. It is also likely that each person knows different things about the state of the world and through this conversation they may exchange information with each other, that contributes to or alters each person’s respective perceptions on the state of the world.
Are our beliefs distorted?
Georg Weizsacker would like to encourage further research into false beliefs within communication and how they lead to misunderstandings between people. He offers the reader 18 questions to consider when measuring and predicting the success rate of a single-step conversation between two people. It is important to note that it is difficult to predict the outcome of a conversation using mathematical models when the conversation is complex, involving multiple people and steps. Therefore, to keep things clear and scientific, Georg has allowed for some variables to remain constant. For example, only single-step conversations are studied, the book assumes that each person knows their own type and the uncertainty about other people’s types is assumed to be statistically independent of the uncertainty about the state of the world (Georg Weizsacker).
The book aims to answer this research question: “What are the beliefs that would justify leading the conversation in the way that people lead it?” Georg Weizsacker measures whether or not these beliefs are true or false and encourages the reader to think about how their false beliefs concerning another person’s actions, type or state of the world can lead to misunderstandings in conversation with them. Essentially, the 18 questions posed within the main body of the text, explore whether our beliefs about these uncertain aspects (action, type or state of the world) are distorted (Georg Weizsacker). If they are distorted, then our communication attempt may fail or not reach its intended target.
Do we need target practice?
Georg presents his readers with three colour-coded case studies that represent three single-step conversations between two individuals, or interlocutors, as he calls them. In each conversation, the speaker wants the listener to do something but the listener rejects it because there are misunderstandings made on the part of the speaker towards the listener. Georg describes a misunderstanding as ‘a belief that misses its target’. (Georg Weizsacker).
Each case study explores a misunderstanding in detail, with reference to the extant literature on game theory and how it can be used to understand decision making. First, we have Rachel (a senior researcher) who asks her boss to fund a new research centre but is turned down by him. Second, Dimitri (an office worker) who doesn’t realise that his colleague Agniezka is considering switching teams because their product design proposal has been rejected, despite high hopes and invested effort on her part. Finally, we have Steve (a young child) who asks Ralph (the school bully) to play with him and gets pushed instead because Ralph is a troubled boy who struggles to process and regulate his emotions in a healthy way.
Should I read this book?
If you would like to learn more about misunderstandings and how we can better communicate with each other, then this book is for you. You do not need a strong background in Microeconomics to appreciate this book; however, this knowledge will be helpful when considering the mathematical models used by Georg Weizsacker for conversation pattern identification and prediction. Otherwise, if you are a keen economist and enjoy game theory and discussions surrounding decision making practices and how they can contribute to effective human interaction, this book will be a great read or asset to use when designing a seminar for university students or as a source to cite within your own academic research, if applicable. I, for one, did enjoy the theoretical discussion and the applied case studies. It is an interesting idea to ponder over and apply within the context of my own conversations with people, particularly if I want something from them! I don’t want to miss my target if I can help it, but this book definitely offers valuable insight into how communication issues can be solved going forward.
Stockholm University - Decision Theory and Game Theory
Georg Weizsacker - Misunderstandings: False Beliefs in Communication