Dua Lupa’s chart topping hit song, “New Rules” is an exercise in pop mastery. With 25 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (the song debuted in July of 2017, and just set its current peak at #8 this week), it’s safe to say that the song has been fairly inescapable. If you actually haven’t heard it, you should know that lyrically she explains a relationship she can’t seem to get out of, and creates a brief checklist (her “new rules”) that will help to get her “over him.”
As it just so happens, “New Rules” also contains two textbook game theory examples of both cooperative and non-cooperative games. Can we suck the fun out of everything and insert learning? Apparently that’s my mission (and unlike my kids trapped in a car with me, you can stop reading at any point).
On the cooperative side, we can say that despite the self-talk that is pervasive throughout the song (even when she is addressing “you” it’s really directed at telling herself), she is communicating this message with everyone who recognizes her situation. She is trying to lead by example here, and cooperating with listeners to seemingly say, “If this situation is familiar, here is the path I am taking out of it.” It is the entire self-help industry in a nut shell – Dua Lupa is sharing her hardship and offering a strategy to overcome it.
By listing her rules, she is introducing commitments or laws that can be enforced. The consequence of not following the rules is, “you ain’t getting over him.” A goal of cooperative games is to find a set of rules that produce a desired outcome and getting everyone on board with success. If someone else can help make you accountable (not to break the rule, or law – or at least give broad level respect to it), we can label the rules as externally enforced.
On the non-cooperative side, we have the other party in her relationship. Relating back to a previously discussed Kobe Bryant story, she gives us his patterns (aka rhythm), and then presents her rules as a strategy for disrupting that rhythm to gain the upper hand.
Again, it is by recognizing the opposition’s patterns that we can strategize to win the game. Since the parties are not in agreement and the rules must be self-reinforced (because he’s calling her, against her objectives), we get to apply non-cooperative strategies. Note that the laws aren’t universally respected, which is a defining characteristic of a non-cooperative game.
So there you have it. Game theory is everywhere, even in pop music. Next time you find yourself giving advice or in a difficult negotiation, just remember that, “I’ve got new rules, I count’em.”