The Art of Kissing

I recently came across a fantastic piece in the new Washington and Lee student journal, the Stone, entitled The Game of Kissing.  The essay, in equal parts subtle wit and academic tone, uses game theory to model the exciting and harrowing experience of deciding whether or not to try to kiss someone.

The author models the decision to go in for a kiss or not as a Stag Hunt game, where each player wants to kiss the other, but neither player knows if the other will accept or reject their advances.  Both players receive their highest payoff when the kiss happens, but each receives their lowest payoff by attempting the kiss and being rejected.  The article presents the following initial payoff matrix:

“C” Stands for cooperate (kiss), and “D” stands for defect (don’t kiss).  The essay shows that while the top left square is socially optimal, the bottom right square is also a stable equilibrium – neither player can improve their payoff by moving unilaterally.  In other words, not kissing is “safe”, and neither player believes they can improve their payoff unless the other player changes decision too.

The essay progresses to add assumptions that make the prospect of going for the kiss better: romance, familiarity, seclusion – but no matter what the bottom right square always remains the “safe” option, a stable equilibrium.

Reading this essay, I was reminded of a passage I recently read in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, in which he describes the interaction between a man and woman in novelist Hermann Broch’s Sleepwalkers.

On Levin’s estate, a man and a woman meet-two melancholy, lonely people.  They like one another and secretly hope to join their lives together.  All they need is the chance to be alone for a moment and say so.  Finally one day they find themselves unobserved in a wood where they have come to gather mushrooms.  Ill at ease, they are silent, knowing that the moment is upon them and they must not let it slip by.  The silence has already lasted rather a long while when the woman suddenly, “involuntarily, reflexively,” starts to talk about mushrooms.  Then silence again, and the man casts about for a way to declare himself, but instead of speaking of love, “on some unexpected impulse” he too talks about mushrooms, powerless and desperate, for never, they know it, never will they speak of love.

Back at the house, the man tells himself that he did not declare his love because of the memory of his dead mistress, which he cannot betray.  But we know perfectly well: It is a false excuse he invokes to console himself.  Console himself? Yes. Because we can resign ourselves to losing a love for a reason.  We would never forgive ourselves for losing it for no reason at all. 

The stakes are a bit higher in Kundera’s description (talking about true love, not just a kiss) but the interaction itself is certainly reminiscent of the The Kissing Game.

I’ve dabbled in game theory in my academic career, at work, and in my free time.  I’m fascinated by it’s elegant simplifications of real life situations and its many practical applications.  I’m particularly intrigued by models that show why groups of people may make decisions that aren’t in the collective best interest such as the Stag Hunt and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Yet, human’s are not wholly rational beings – though we rely on rationality it doesn’t equip us to fully handle the nature of our being.  Our reason has limits.  Experiments with The Ultimatum Game show that people will often defy the predictions of our models.  We are hosts to numerous cognitive biases.  We are the product of a complex  and ill-understood interplay of thought and emotion.

As an economist and amateur game theorist myself it almost feels like sacrilege to admit this… But maybe our models and theories are just the product of a deep-seeded urge to systematize our own chaotic nature, to try to understand ourselves in terms that are simply incongruous with the reality of our existence.

Maybe it’s easier to accept the imperfect mathematical explanation for our perplexing moments, the tragedies of omission, than it is to admit that we simply spoke of mushrooms.