Game theory for self actuation

How do I access the version of myself that makes the best decisions?

Game theory is a math-related concept that, generally speaking, has nothing to do with “games” or “gaming.” At its core, it uses probabilities and equations to solve challenges involving multiple intelligent bodies.

A simple way of looking at it: game theory helps businesses guess what everyone who could possibly do anything that affects their business is going to do so that they can make the best decisions.

It’s a lot more complex than that but, fortunately, we don’t really care about game theory as it stands for the purposes of this article.

Bastardizing game theory for personal use

At its core, game theory uses logic (math, mostly) to help you figure out what to do. It’s a scientific replacement for trusting your gut — which is fine when you’re picking a new restaurant, but unforgivable when thousands of people’s jobs (or lives!) are at stake.

The gist is that you can’t control what other people are going to do, but you can try and figure out what the most likely scenarios look like.

What if it were possible to use game theory on ourselves? Instead of trying to predict what other agents were going to do, what if we were able to “crunch the numbers” and figure out what the best version of ourselves would do in any given situation?

Pizza or salad? Let’s consult the magical game theory machine. It says: “salad is healthier and you’re going to get a dopamine high later on when you pat yourself on the back for making a healthy decision.” So, as the CEO of me, I decide to eat the salad. Team, we’re focused on feeling good about ourselves later. Let’s adjust, and we’ll see how that works out.

However, maybe it doesn’t say salad. Maybe it says: “today was a really shitty day. Let’s get stuffed crust.” I’ll take that into consideration. Team, we’re getting pizza. Wings too. The machine’s right, it’s been a tough day and comfort food feels like self-care”

Sadly, that’s not how game theory works. In a multi-body system, game theory helps businesses ensure they get the right-sized piece of any given economic pie.

But when you’re trying to decide whether to eat pizza or salad, the only competing interests are internal. You are a single-body system with nobody to exploit, as far as game theory is concerned.

Self actuation

There are no divine oracles. Game theory can’t tell you whether pizza or salad is the best choice in a given situation. What it can do, however, is help you decide to make the decision.

I’m talking about a very specific subset of decisions related to the concept of “self-actuation.”

(Not to be confused with “self-actualization” and Maslov’s hierarchy of needs.)

Self-actuation is the idea that you can develop a mental engine to aid in the very first order of the decision-making process: deciding to make a decision.

Mental engines

If all things are equal and you’re still struggling to make a choice or start a task, it might help to have something to “break the tie.”

You could just flip a coin and let fate/luck/chaos decide. Heads you eat pizza, tails it’s salad.

But that’s the equivalent of “trusting your gut.” There are practical methods by which we can “decide to make a decision” without relying on pure happenstance.

We can create a generic engine that uses logic instead of chance to replace the coin.

All we need to do is separate the problem into four quadrants made up of “research/prepare,” “need more time,” “understand the problem,” and “do the thing.”

Problem: I want pizza, but salad is healthier.

Research or prepare? Research says the salad is healthier.

Take more time? This isn’t the kind of problem you need to take a long walk to figure out, but it’s never a bad idea to take three minutes to stretch while you let a decision marinate or consider the next two quadrants.

Is this a matter of self-care? Yes. I may feel better about myself later if I make the healthy choice, but food that brings us comfort can have a profoundly positive effect on our mental health. There’s a trade-off to consider.

Do the thing? It all boils down to whether I’ll get more out of eating comfort food or making what I consider to be healthy choices.

Disclaimer: We’re talking about self-care, not mental or physical health. Mental and physical health assessments should be performed by trained professionals in a clinical environment.

Self-care, for the purposes of this article, is the act of tending to your basic human needs.

So if I’m scrolling through Uber Eats, and I suddenly find myself trying to decide whether to order pizza or a salad, all things being equal, I’ll order the salad. But, if I’m having a tough day, I’ll order the pizza.

If all things aren’t equal (perhaps I have high cholesterol, an allergy to lettuce, or I can only afford a slice) then there’s no reason to use the engine because the consequences outweigh the risks of indecision.

When all things are equal, it’s more important for me to eat something than it is for me to eat the healthiest option. This is strictly a your mileage may vary kind of situation.

game theory


You might also like: Practice self-compassion and get some rest.



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