Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Thomas Schelling, 1921-2016

Among the several things I missed during my busy last week was the sad passing of Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the most important theorists and early writers in game theory. My ECON100 class (and past ECON308/408 Managerial Economics students) will recognise Schelling's name from the Schelling Point, the most likely solution to a coordination game (where there is more than one Nash equilibrium) in game theory. I also very recently (within the last couple of weeks) discussed Schelling's work on polarisation, in particular his model of segregation, with one of my new PhD students who will be working on a microsimulation model of ethnic communities in Auckland (more on that in a far future post - she is only just getting started on that work).

The Washington Post and the New York Times have excellent summaries of Schelling's life and work. I particular like these bits from the New York Times (which illustrate both the breadth of his work and its real-world implications):
Among other counterintuitive propositions he put forth, Professor Schelling suggested that one side in a negotiation can strengthen its position by narrowing its options, using as an example a driver in a game of chicken who rips the steering wheel from the steering column and brandishes it so his opponent can see that he no longer controls the car. He also argued that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation...
In “Meteors, Mischief and Wars,” published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1960, Professor Schelling looked at the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and reviewed three novels that imagined such an event. The director Stanley Kubrick read his comments on the novel “Red Alert” and adapted the book for “Dr. Strangelove,” on which Professor Schelling was a consultant.
And on the model of segregation I noted above:
Expanding on the work of Morton Grodzins, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who used the term “tip point” to describe the crucial moment when white fears become white flight, Mr. Schelling offered a simple diagram, almost like a game board, to show how mixed urban neighborhoods could quickly become entirely black, even when white residents expressed only a slight preference for living among members of their own race.
His papers on the subject, and his book “Micromotives and Macrobehavior” (1978), achieved wider currency when his ideas were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book “The Tipping Point” (2000).
You can expect a book review of Micromotives and Macrobehavior sometime in the new year - it has been on my 'to-be-read' list for some time.

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