Using Game Theory to Control Your Children

Although we may not have children now, chances are in the future that you will have children (according to Gallup, over 70% of US adults will have children). So if you do end up having children, what your about to read may come in handy.


Kevin Zollman, a game theorist and associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, recently took to Live Science to talk about his new book The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting. In his post, Zollman discusses his new book and how game theory can be applied to negotiations with children. Zollman applies game theory to the classic situation of a dad threatening to turn the car around and cancel the family vacation if his children do not behave. In this situation, the child who receives the threat is initially in shock of the thought of missing out on the vacation. Soon after this initial shock, the child usually realizes that the dad would not sacrifice his time, money, and relaxation by turning the car around. If the father is thinking rationally, which we know from class is an assumption in game theory, then the negative payoff of being annoyed by his children should be more desirable than the negative payoff of not going on vacation and losing money (assuming your kids aren’t literally murdering each other). Therefore, the child will realize that the dad won’t actually turn the car around and will continue to misbehave. In game theory, the dad has committed the fallacy of issuing a non-credible threat. Zollman attributes this idea to German economist and Nobel Laureate Reinhard Selten, who said a threat is only credible if you want to do it when it comes time to follow through.

Zollman offers a set of alternatives to issuing a non-credible threat to your children. The first, and best solution is to threaten to replace one of the child’s favorite activities on the vacation with an activity that the father likes. For instance, if the family was driving to Orlando, the father may threaten to bring the family golfing one day instead of going to Disney World. This creates a payoff matrix that actually rewards the dad for the child’s continued misbehavior, thus making the threat credible. Another alternative to issuing a non-credible threat is to threaten an action that has a very low cost associated with it. Zollman uses the example of children who share a room and will not stop talking to show how a low cost threat can be applied. In this situation, threatening to make one of the kids sleep in another room is credible because it achieves the father’s goal at a very low cost to him. Because the father would accomplish his goal under both threats with either a gain or at a relatively low cost to himself, the children will see these threats as credible and will obey the father in order to prevent their worse possible payoff.

Finally, Zollman emphasizes that parents should not be using game theory to trick their children. Rather, the purpose of using game theory is to try and achieve a win-win outcome for the parent and child. Trying to find the Nash equilibrium in this situation will often times be the best result for the family. Overall, using game theory to change a child’s behavior is a rewarding strategy for tired parent.

Siblings’ Dilemma? Solve Backseat Bickering with Game Theory

‘The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting’ (US 2016): Book Excerpt

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