Nash’s dissertation on game theory was the basis for the Nobel Award in Economics in 1994.
Game theory is an approach to studying decision-making in situations where one actor’s best options depend on what others do. It did not come into its own until World War II when the British Navy used the theory to improve hit rates against German submarines.
Nash’s Princeton Professor John von Neumann had developed game theory, but focused exclusively on so-called ‘zero-sum’ games, where there is one winner and one loser (as, for example, in most U.S. presidential elections).
Nash focused instead on games that are a mixture of cooperative and non-cooperative elements – for example, when you negotiate to buy a car from a dealer. This new direction did not immediately find favor with the Princeton faculty. Yet was Nash’s ability to break with his department’s way of thinking linked with his schizophrenic mind?
Nash’s Game Theory
Nash freed game theory from the constraints of von Neumann’s two-person, zero-sum theory, in which one person’s gain is the other person’s loss.
Although many games fit this model (two sports teams competing against one another), there are situations in which this assumption does not hold – was nuclear war one of these?
Nash arrived at the RAND Corporation in the 1950’s , when this secretive nuclear think tank in Santa Monica was being mainly funded by the United States Air Force.
The specter of a fissile Armageddon, disastrous for the victor and vanquished alike was the focus of RAND’s mathematicians, military strategists and economists. Could they come up with a winning strategy in the nuclear conflict between two superpowers?
Donald Capps points out that as weapons became more destructive, all-out hostilities had ceased to be a situation of pure conflict in which opponents had no common interest whatsoever. Inflicting the greatest damage on an enemy was senseless when doing so would result in one’s own destruction.
Equilibrium Theory Linked to Understanding of the Brain?
For RAND, the biggest appeal of the Nash ‘equilibrium’ concept was its promise of liberation from the two-person zero-sum game.
There is a sense that John Nash could have saved the world from nuclear war with his game theory and it’s possible that this arose out of his schizophrenic or psychotic mind-set. In which case, it is possible that the mental illness that received a series of psychiatric hospitalizations, as John Nash endured, in fact, helped saved the world from the ‘madness’ of leaders pressing the nuclear button.
Donald Capps contends that John Nash’s equilibrium theory is also linked to contemporary neuroscience understanding of the brain.
He points out that in schizophrenia, it is not the brain’s two hemispheres that are necessarily malfunctioning. Rather, it could be the connections between them. The equilibrium theory suggests that optimum results occur when two persons work cooperatively together for their mutual benefit, but in order to do so, they need to be in communication with one another.
Thus, Capps suggests that Nash’s equilibrium theory could also represent a powerful contribution to the neuroscience study of psychosis and its treatment.
The Nobel Prize committee sent a representative to Princeton to determine whether Nash was likely to behave abnormally at the awards ceremony, but instead of expressing anger or disdain towards the awards committee for checking him out before making the award, Nash treated their worries humorously.
That they were still so worried about his behavior at the awards ceremony so long after his last hospitalization is possibly testament to the enduring stigma surrounding severe mental illness. It’s a taboo that even today means that many suffering from similar psychological problems are not treated with the sympathy, understanding and optimism that recovery is not just possible, but that sufferers contribute to society.
John Nash later observed with some regret there was a price to be paid for becoming more rational as opposed to his previous messianic perspective. But Donald Capps suggests that his recognition of this very fact was in itself an expression of his recovery.