Game Theory Tips for the Real World from Kobe Bryant and Cal Fussman

In the last post we covered how depending on the situation you are in, you can use an awareness of rhythm to guide your strategy. To borrow a page from game theory, the two primary scenarios we’re describing are usually referred to as non-cooperative and cooperative “games.” Having at least a 101 level understanding of the terminology and framework can be really helpful for planning and understanding our interactions.

For the unfamiliar, you can think of a game as a single transaction. To stick with topics from Cal Fussman’s conversation with Kobe Bryant, we’ll use the examples of a one-on-one basketball game, and a one-on-one interview to keep things simple. Without getting too deep into the theory, we have to also acknowledge that most of life doesn’t involve just one transaction. We call these multi-stage games. Repeated transactions mean you have to take prior transactions into account as you think of future strategies. We call that knowledge of the other party “reputation.”  Motivations, incentives, intent – all familiar topics to us – play heavily into reputation.

In a one-on-one non-cooperative game like Kobe being man marked by Barnes, each side has some awareness of the intent of the opposition. As Kobe explains it, he knows the stakes of the game, the attitude of Barnes who is responsible for marking him, and the intensity that he expects and experiences his having. Kobe’s unstated ambition is to disrupt Barnes’ rhythm, and force him to have to find/match his own. Setting and leading the rhythm is having the upper hand. When he didn’t flinch, Kobe won that (single) game.

In a cooperative game like Cal’s interviews, we still start with intent. There are expectations of who is doing the interviewing, or what the approximate role is of each party in the conversation. You are familiar with this already, just think of the difference between calling on a customer or going to see your doctor. The roles help us mentally prepare for what we think the intent of the other party is. One of Cal’s great skills is what those who study persuasion call “pacing.” Cal is a master at finding and matching the emotional state and conversational pace of whomever he is talking to. Since an interview has a continuous stream of questions (i.e. transactions), this allows him to build an empathetic reputation. When Cal paces off of their rhythm, it allows him to draw more and more information out of his source as that trust deepens.

There’s a near bottomless well of strategy to draw from, but we’ll stop here for today. Next we’ll apply some pop culture examples of non-cooperative and cooperative strategies in practice.

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