Brag, Cave and Crow: a contribution to game theory

Game theory models interactions by presenting the “players” as people (or organizations) who face choices, and the outcome as the result of how they each choose. In conflictual circumstances, the players can choose between the option that their opponent would prefer (cooperate) or the one that their opponent would not prefer (defect). In certain unpleasant circumstances, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, every player is better off defecting even though that outcome is worst for all.

Donald Trump has faced a set of conflictual games as president, with North Korea, Mexico and Canada, China, and Chuck & Nancy (among others) on the opposite side of the table. He has frequently applied the novel strategy of Brag, Cave, and Crow (Trump, DJ et al. 2019). It works like this: First declare very loudly that you will defect and the other side will be forced to cooperate, then cooperate, and then declare very loudly that the other side was the one that cooperated.

This is not as dumb as it sounds.

First, assume that you can convince yourself that you did win. Payers seek to achieve their own preferences or maximize their own satisfaction. If you talk yourself into the idea that you won even though someone might see you as having folded, your subjective feelings are fine. That’s a win. Meanwhile, the conflict is gone and does you no more damage.

Second, if you are Donald Trump, you are always more interested in another game, a popularity contest. You are appealing to an audience of consumers or voters. Insofar as you can persuade them that you won even though you folded, you do win what you wanted most. And in a world of echo chambers and partisan heuristics, often this is exactly what happens. For instance, settle for the substance of NAFTA with minor tweaks, but rename it with an acronym that has “US … A” in it, and you can Brag, Cave, and Crow (BCC) for the win.

In the immediate circumstances, it’s good that BCC pays off for Donald Trump. It’s much better that he should brag about having solved the North Korean nuclear standoff than convince himself that he must actually force North Korea to denuclearize. Likewise, if he can claim he built a wall on the southern border when he didn’t, that will save us all some money, preserve the Constitution, offend Mexico less than a physical wall would, and leave nature and landowners alone.

At this juncture, Trump’s choice is either to Crow or to go back to the Brag stage. In other words, he can declare that he won or else threaten to win in the future with a veto or a declaration of emergency. I don’t think he can both Brag and Crow at the same moment about the same thing, although the echo chamber may be hermetic enough to allow that to work to some degree.

Alas, the incentive to BCC is yet another blow to responsible and accountable governance and public deliberation.

See also game theory and the shutdown; the emperor’s new wall; and why learn game theory?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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