What follows is a relatively stream-of-consciousness narrative that I wrote in late October 2013, on a real strategic challenge in my own life that I had not yet thought about carefully from a game-theory perspective.
My thinking on this problem changed significantly later, after my wife provided her feedback and ideas and we learned from some early experimentation. However, since the point here is to show you what it’s like to open a NEW Game-Changer File, I have intentionally left the analysis and presentation as they were right at the beginning, warts and all.
Step 1: Identify a Pressing Strategic Problem
Identifying the problem is easy.
Getting my kids to set the dinner table may seem inconsequential to you, but it matters a lot to my wife and me. When the kids complain, or drag their feet, it sets a sour tone for the meal and takes much of the joy out of our time together.
Step 2: Understand the Players, Options, and Motivations
Our family’s “Dinner Table Game” seems about as simple as it gets from a game-theory point of view, with clearly defined players—my young son, my young daughter, and me (my wife and toddler undoubtedly care about the outcome but aren’t active players in this particular drama)—and strategic options. But what about motivations?
Assessing others’ true motivations is often a challenge. Misunderstandings are the norm, as we look at other people’s situations through our own eyes, and we are often tempted to caricature or even demonize others to feel better about ourselves.
In my own dinnertime game, for instance, my instinct is to judge the kids uncharitably while justifying myself, saying: “This family is a team, but these kids don’t seem to care. They ignore me when I call out that it’s time to set the table, then whine and moan as I drag them into the kitchen to get to work. They need to learn that this sort of behavior is unacceptable. They need to listen—now!—and do what I say!”
My instinct is to think that way because (subconsciously) I want to pin the blame for our dinnertime misadventures on them. But I’m the one who is failing everyone here with my angry outburst.
I’m also clearly oversimplifying the problem—though it’s not yet clear to me how—since my kids show plenty of initiative and teamwork in other contexts. For instance, every morning, all on their own and without any supervision, they each (i) make their beds, (ii) brush their teeth, (iii) choose weather-appropriate clothing, (iv) get dressed, and (v) report to the kitchen for breakfast. Clearly, my wife has a system that works in the morning. So, perhaps it’s partly—or mostly—my fault for not handling the kids as effectively at dinnertime as she does in the morning.
Step 3: Brainstorm Ways to Change the Game
Given my wife’s success with the morning routine, her strategy seems like a good place to start when it comes to brainstorming potential solutions to my dinnertime dilemma. How does she do it? Every morning at wake-up time, she sets a timer, leaves to cook breakfast, and gives both kids a sticker if both complete their morning routine before the timer buzzes. (No one gets a sticker unless both do everything on time.) Once the kids earn ten stickers in this way, they get to go to a movie or enjoy some other special activity on the weekend. That’s it. And it works!
There’s no room for negotiation with the timer, so both kids just focus on getting their morning tasks done, quickly and quietly. It’s a thing of beauty … all the more so since I’m typically already at work and not around to help. (Actually, now that I think about it, the process tends to go LESS smoothly when I’m around, as the kids ask and get me to help them with various stages of their routine.)
If this timer-and-stickers approach works so well in the morning, maybe I should use it at dinnertime to get the table set, not to mention before bedtime to get toys cleaned up and all the other times I want the kids to do something. That might work, but it’s easy to imagine the “diminishing returns” that stickers will bring if we use them too often. Worse yet, I worry that focusing too much on extrinsic rewards might cause the children not to learn that good work is its own reward. So let’s try not to use stickers, or dessert, or any other prize to get the kids to set the table.
Even so, perhaps I can take some lessons from my wife’s success in the morning. For instance, one appealing aspect of the morningtime routine is how she takes herself “out of the game” to some extent, by setting an expectation that the kids should get themselves ready for the day. This teaches them to be more responsible and self-reliant, obviously, but also removes the opportunity for them to try to get her to do some of their chores for them. Writing this up has made me (a bit too) painfully aware that, up to now, my own style of interacting with the children has likely been part of the problem. Can I find a way to SAY NOTHING at all? Just using a timer isn’t enough, since there’s still the issue of what happens should time run out. If I just revert to getting upset or twisting their arms, nothing will be gained. What then to do?
The consequences of not setting the table on time have to be automatic, so I’m not tempted to argue. They also have to be clear and credible, so the kids learn not to test the system. Finally, they should put the focus on the kids’ own choices rather than the reward or punishment itself. (Why does that matter? Imagine if I were to punish my daughter by taking away one of her bedtime stories. She would dwell all dinner long on the punishment, rather than her own bad choice. In the end, she might learn very little from the experience.)
I’m still struggling to find a good answer, quite frankly, but let’s push forward and see what comes out. One thing that seems clear is that shirking kids shouldn’t be able to “hold dinner hostage,” by stopping us from eating until they choose to join the meal. So, we have to be prepared to sit down and start without them.
1. Any child who fails to help set the table (“uncooperative child”) will have his/her place left unmade, while everyone else begins the meal.
2. Any uncooperative child will not be fed until he/she has set his/her own place with cup, plate, bowl, silverware, and napkin.
Since uncooperative kids have to visit ALL of the “table-setting stations” in the kitchen to set their own places, it may actually take more time and effort than if they had just shared the work at the start. This is important, since we don’t want the kids ever to feel like they got away with something when they fail to work as a team.
Better yet, the need to bring in one’s own silverware and everything else to rejoin the family creates a memorable moment in which nothing needs to be said, but the message is clear: It doesn’t feel good to be separated from the family, but everyone is always welcome once they decide to come back into the fold.
What if the family finishes dinner and one of the kids still hasn’t come to the table? One “tough” option would be to take dinner away and refuse to serve any more food. An evening without food might be enough to deter the same sort of behavior in the future, but can I really refuse to feed my child? Imagine if my son were to come to me to apologize and to ask, in his most polite voice, if there is anything he can eat. If I give him some food, my own credibility will be shot, undermining not just my ability to issue effective threats in the future, but also the trust I want him always to have that “my word is my bond.” On the other hand, if I don’t give him anything to eat, the focus of the evening will shift and what he’s likely to remember is how Daddy forced him to go to sleep hungry, not his own bad choice.
Better than refusing to serve dinner, I think, would be to continue to offer dinner once the child sets his/her place but to ensure that dinner is not as enjoyable as it would have been together as a family.
3. Should the rest of the family finish eating before an uncooperative child sets his/her place, I will clear and clean the table as usual and put leftovers away in the fridge.
4. An uncooperative child can still eat dinner any time prior to bedtime, by setting his/her place and requesting to be served. However, he/she will eat alone at a completely bare table, and the food will be cold.
Note that, should bedtime be reached, dinner will not be served. How is that credible, if refusing to serve late dinner is not?
First of all, we already have a rule in our family that no one eats after bedtime, so refusing to serve dinner after bedtime maintains the status quo and is therefore less likely to be viewed by the kids as unfair. This makes it easier and hence more credible for me to enforce.
Second, since the kids have plenty of opportunity to request dinner before bedtime, everyone will know that it was their choice not to eat dinner, not my choice to deny it. So, I won’t feel bad putting them to sleep hungry. (By contrast, a kid who waits until just after everyone is finished eating might plausibly claim that they felt too embarrassed to join the meal midstream. I’d feel bad denying dinner in that case.)
Last but not least, since bedtime occurs at the end of the day, the kids have less opportunity to try to change my mind. (If I were to declare “No dinner!!” at 6 o’clock, the kids could plead with me for the rest of the evening, and I might just give in. If I wait until bedtime, however, my resolve only needs to last through the bedtime routine.)
Step 4: Brainstorm Weaknesses of Your Initial Ideas
As you can probably tell, I like the idea that I just brainstormed. But that doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing. No matter how experienced you become at thinking about games (and strategic ecosystems more broadly), one thing you’ll find is that YOU NEVER GET THE GAME COMPLETELY RIGHT the first time around.
There are countless ways to get the game wrong, but many of the most common failures of game-awareness fall into a few basic categories, including:
1. Did I miss a player?
2. Did I miss an option?
3. Did I misunderstand a player’s motivations (aka “payoffs”)?
4. Can players’ options or payoffs be changed in a way that I did not understand?
It’s very likely that my initial attempt to understand the Dinner Table Game failed on many fronts, and it’s likely that I’ll never come to understand the game in all its aspects. When I start this process of poking around for errors in my reasoning, however, what I do first is try to imagine reasons why my initial conclusions might be COMPLETELY wrong.
In other words, is it possible that implementing my idea might actually make things worse? Now that I think about it, yes, it might. In fact, as I write this, I’m becoming convinced that—if I were to do what I described in the previous section—dinner would likely become a disaster.
Why? I failed to capture several key aspects of the kids’ payoffs. First, when dinnertime arrives, the kids are often in the midst of some other fun activity, which they would prefer to continue for at least a few more moments. That is, they have a desire not to stop what they are doing, especially not if they must stop something midstream. If they are given the choice—(i) set the table now or (ii) wait a while and set your own place—they might well choose to wait a while and set their own place. Indeed, once one kid calls out “I’ll just set my own place!”, it’s easy to imagine the other doing the same. In the end, my wife and I might wind up eating lonely dinners most nights, our chair-bound toddler our only company.
This outcome would be especially bad, since we’d not only lose “family time” at dinner, but we’d also be essentially training our children to think first about their own needs and only second about what’s best for the family.
Social units, be they families or firms or neighborhoods, are driven in large part by norms of behavior, with individuals in the group naturally intrinsically motivated to abide by the norm. In this context, social penalties (like ostracism or disapproval) can be much more effective than non-social penalties (like a monetary fine). Indeed, introducing non-social penalties in a group setting can actually make things worse, as some group members perceive that they now have permission to misbehave, as long as they pay the penalty. (A pioneering study in this vein looked at day-care centers, where parents were more likely to be late in picking up their kids after a late-penalty was introduced. See here. )
Now that I recognize a problem with my initial idea, I would return to Step 2, rethinking what’s really motivating the kids and brainstorming again how best to change the table-setting game to improve our family experience.
I’m not sure what ideas I’ll come up with, but one thing I know for sure. However clever I may be, it always helps to consult others, especially those with more knowledge–or more common sense– than myself.
Step 5: Seek Out Diverse Opinions and Correction
It’s easy to get caught up in a single track of thinking. This can be quite dangerous in games, if we get so accustomed to an assumption that we start accepting it as fact, or if we become so invested in one “solution” that we blind ourselves to even more effective alternative approaches.
Successful Game-Changers must always seek out others’ views, and be open to correction, since any analysis will always miss some subtleties, complexities, counter-measures, etc. (There’s sense behind the saying that “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”) Best of all, obviously, is to consult “the experts,” those with the deepest understanding of the game at hand.
In the case of my Dinner Table Game, for instance, the foremost expert on my kids and what makes them tick is undoubtedly my wife. Before I do anything that changes the dinner routine, I need to get her reality check and hear her ideas. (A distant second when it comes to expertise might be Jo Frost, the star of the reality-TV hit “Supernanny.” Ms. Frost is one my favorite Game-Changers. To see why, check out her work here with the Swift Family. )
Even though no strategic analysis is ever completely correct, being aware of our own proneness to errors helps us avoid them. As I write in the book:
“The Game-Changer Files highlight the power of game theory, but it’s worth noting how little formal analysis they contain. Each Game-Changer File is mostly devoted to understanding the games at hand as fully as possible. That’s also how I spent the vast majority of my time preparing them, in a quest for greater game-awareness: poring over every information source I could imagine; studying the scientific literature, when relevant, and consulting experts to fill in the gaps; and even infiltrating online discussion boards to see how players in the game really think about it.
“Without such preparation, I still could have written down a game-theory model and ‘solved’ it. But my recommendations would not have been worth much. In the same way, when you apply what you have learned here, first take the time to ‘know what you don’t know,’ then fill in those gaps as best you can. Finally, where possible, design your strategic plan to be robust and/or adaptable to any remaining uncertainties. Do that, and you’ll enjoy the profound strategic advantage that game theory can provide.”
Step 6: Change the Game!
That’s all I have to report for now, as the process of building this Game-Changer File continues. I feel that I’m getting closer to finding a strategy that might “change the game” for the better, but I’m not there yet. Wish me luck!
Now, think about your own pressing strategic challenges, and open your own Game-Changer File. Start taking luck OUT of the equation in your life, as you change the games around you to your strategic advantage.