A tic-tac game with heart shape pieces depicting love and relationship as a strategic game in which we can apply game theory.

On Game Theory and Love: Use Game Theory Strategies to Maintain a Committed Relationship

Love is the eternal mystery that the human mind has been unable to unravel. This is because love stretches beyond the realm of embodied experience. And humans, we make sense of things through our embodied experience.

But we don’t necessarily need an intellectual grasp of love for us to enjoy it. Love is the magic that happens to us when we’re not searching. It’s the miracle that stuns us into paralysing awe. This is why someone struck by Cupid’s arrow is said to be ‘lovesick’, for love enraptures the totality of being — spirit, soul, and body — if you believe in that tripartite depiction of man.

To fall in love is simple. It doesn’t always need our permission. Sometimes, we’re merely possessed vessels in this mysterious orchestration, led spellbound into its euphoria. What is hard, though, is staying in love. And how to stay in love is what everyone who desires a healthy and long-lasting relationship must know.

Psychologists explain that love progresses through different phases. There’s the honeymoon phase. This is the phase where emotions are intense and lovers are blinded by infatuation. In this phase, the relationship takes preeminence over other aspects of their lives and their rationality. From a neurological perspective, love, especially in this phase, turns on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres. It also leads to a drop in serotonin, which gives rise to obsession.

Then comes the next phase, exploration. Many relationships don’t progress beyond this phase because this is where the infatuation gives way to reality; differences and doubts that may jeopardise the relationship arise. The serotonin returns to normal and the feelings of infatuation and obsessions begin to moderate.

Many people don’t make it beyond this phase because they’re ignorant of this natural progression of relationship, and they conflate the doubts and conflicts that arise during this phase as being out of love. Couples who progress beyond this phase are less likely to break up because they’ve developed the skills and tools to navigate conflicts during this turbulent stage of their relationship. Conflicts become constructive because they lead to an understanding of each other, which opens the room for the next phases of their relationship: adaptation, acceptance, and commitment.

Well-meaning people have become emotional wrecks because, try as they might, they’ve not been able to form meaningful, lasting relationships. You open your social media pages and everyone says that love is a scam. Yet, people are falling in love, navigating each phase, getting married, and maintaining meaningful and lasting relationships every day. Perhaps there’s something these people know and do, even if they’ve not necessarily learned it as a tool in relationship seminars or a counsellor’s office, that accounts for their successful relationships.

I love mental models. As someone who’s curious not only about my intrinsic nature but also about the world around me, mental models offer me a framework and analytical tools to make sense of things and to navigate life.

One mental model that can help us maintain our relationships, even romantic ones, is game theory.

Yes, love is beyond the mental. As Zach Beach expresses it, ‘Love exists in a different plane, a different realm of reality than the one we are used to. It is in the realm of non-reality that does not follow the laws of physics we are used to and it does not match up to our lived experience of being in a body.’

But despite its non-reality and emotionality, we often find out that to stay in love, we need more than feelings and infatuation because they’re not always stable. I believe that staying in love requires the mental as much as the emotional. And I even dare to say that there is a mental model, divorced from squishy feelings, emotions and even morality, that we can apply to our relationship to make them more lasting. This mental model is called Game Theory.

Game theory is a mathematical framework used to analyse and understand strategic interactions between rational decision-makers, where the outcome depends on the choices made by each participant and the interdependence of those choices. Put simply, it’s the study of decisions where one person’s decision depends on the decisions of other people — like in the game of chess, where the move of your opponent determines your move.

One question that one may then ask is, can we apply game theory to complicated human interactions? The answer is yes.

When applied to relationships, game theory postulates that a faithful and lasting relationship is just another form of social cooperation. Ask yourself, why do people stay through different phases of their relationship? Why do people remain faithful in relationships? Is it because of the emotions (we’ve agreed that love isn’t enough); is it ethics and morality (why then do religious people cheat? ); is it because of fear?

The first thing that game theorists find out is that when two people know that their relationship will be short, they are more likely to cheat or bow out at the first sense of conflict. If, however, the two people see no foreseeable end to the relationship, they are less likely to cheat and are more likely to cooperate to make it work. Hence, those grey-haired couples you see together aren’t necessarily more in love with each other than you and your partner, assuming that love is measurable. Rather, they could weather through different phases because they have both decided that this was it.

This is very important to note because a lot of adults enter a relationship without first getting this out of the way. That is, knowing if they’re in for the short or long term. And this is foundational for the social cooperation that leads to lasting relationships — being open about what you want in and from the relationship.

One must learn to eliminate options in a world where the opportunities to cheat and reasons not to cooperate are readily available. Like the good Book says, your eyes must be single. Cooperation is impossible in a relationship when one or both parties are considering other options.

Hunting the Stag

To bring home the application of game theory to love, let’s consider the Stag Hunt concept.

Imagine two hunters who have the option to hunt either a stag or a hare. Hunting a stag requires cooperation because it’s a large animal that can only be successfully captured if both hunters work together. However, hunting a hare can be done individually and is a safer, but less rewarding, option.

Here’s how the scenario plays out using the game theory concept:

– There are two players, Player A and Player B

– Each player has two options: to hunt a stag (cooperate) or to hunt a hare (defect).

– The payoff for hunting a stag is higher for both players if they cooperate. However, if one player chooses to hunt a stag and the other chooses to hunt a hare, the player hunting the hare gets a higher payoff, while the player hunting the stag gets nothing.

In this hunt, much like in relationships, there’s usually the temptation to defect and hunt a hare — a metaphor for cheating or not cooperating. What game theory proposes is that the decisions and actions of others should determine yours. In this context, therefore, being faithful in your relationship or staying to make it work isn’t because you are in love, moral or selfless, but because you desire cooperation. It is about narrow self-interest.

Narrow self-interest isn’t a substitute for fidelity, selflessness, and other forms of altruism that we often associate with love in a relationship. Instead, the idea that I’m proposing is that we are cooperating in service of our interests. A counterintuitive idea to what we think love or relationship should be, but one that works regardless.

This then opens the door for reciprocity. Or what in game theory is called tit-for-tat strategy.

In maintaining a lasting relationship, you have to be committed to being cooperative and sending out the signal to the other party that you are willing to. If, however, after showing your commitment, the other party chooses to hunt the hare, you reciprocate by defecting as well.

This may seem to go against the notion of forgiveness, which is important for a relationship to work. But when dating is seen as a game, which evolutionary biology tells us it is, we have to let the other party know that we’re willing to reciprocate both non-cooperation and cooperation.

This strategy works even better in repetitive and long-term situations like dating because cooperation becomes more advantageous over time. People learn that defecting initially may lead to retaliation and lower long-term gains. Strategies like tit-for-tat, where players cooperate initially and retaliate if the other player defects promote cooperation effectively. The prospect of future interactions incentivises cooperation by maximising long-term rewards, even though there may be short-term temptations to hunt the hare. Robert Axelrod calls this ‘the shadow of the future’.

It isn’t a Zero-sum Game

While dating is a game, it isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not about winners and losers. The idea that cooperation in a relationship is about narrow self-interest doesn’t suggest that we should be narcissistic, hold back in love or that we shouldn’t care at all about our partner. It instead suggests that we should commit because it serves our self-interests. The long-term, cumulative gain of commitment outweighs the fleeting pleasure of defecting. Your commitment is an investment into the relationship, and the return on your investment is the reciprocity of your partner, companionship, and love. A win-win situation for both, if they’re good players as well.

In this application, game theory serves as a rational guide against bad players. When you think about dating in terms of social cooperation between you and your partner, you set expectations. And if these expectations aren’t met, you’re able to reexamine the relationship. This helps you navigate the conflicting duality of what your heart wants and what your mind knows is right. The emphasis is separating the conflicting interests of the heart and mind. While love isn’t a finite resource — you don’t run out of love because you exhausted your love on your partner; rather, the more love you give, the more you have to give. Your time and commitment aren’t finite resources. Game theory helps you recognize bad players and uncooperative partners early on.

What the application of game theory — cooperation, mutual interests, pay-off, reciprocity — offers us is a framework with which we can maintain relationships outside of the usual constricts of romance and even morality. After all, all these have failed repeatedly. Good people cheat on their partners. People who are in love break up when the infatuation fades as their relationship progresses through different phases because they can’t think of commitment and cooperation outside the confines of romance. Game theory asks you to commit and cooperate in service of mutual self-interests instead.

When infatuations wanes, what you stand to gain in cooperating might keep you. Being aware of retribution and understanding the folly in picking short-term gratification instead of the compounding merit that cooperation assures, might also prove a more effective tool for maintaining committed relationships than the reliance on feelings.

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