Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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