Nash Equilibrium


When I was a kid, my sister and cousins would all trick-or-treat together. The highlight of Halloween was not the costumes or even the candy. It was The Candy Swap afterwards. We dumped our pillowcases onto my parents’ burnt orange living room carpet and went to work. I freely admit that as the oldest, I had a certain negotiating advantage. However, I like to think that every October 31st of my childhood was spent sharpening the negotiating skills I now use in the office of Don King Productions.

“What do you mean you won’t trade your full size Snickers for Sixlets?” I’d ask my little cousin. “You can buy a Snickers all year ’round! Sixlets are only around at Halloween!”

My kids have continued The Candy Swap tradition, and this year was a particularly sticky one. Even though the kiddos had trick-or-treated together, The Boy garnered significantly more loot than The Girl. It’s not hard to figure out why the inhabitants of our neighborhood dumped twice the amount of candy into The Boy’s bag. First, he’s at a particularly adorable stage of growth and was dressed as a Marshmallow. Second, at each door, he zeroed in on the homeowner with the kind of focus only a spectrum kid can have.

“Awesome candy,” he’d say, peering into a basket. Or, “Did you have those orange lights in your oak tree last year?”

So The Boy went into the negotiations holding more cards. However, even though the The Girl’s “I’m getting kinda old for this so let me just throw on an army jacket” costume didn’t score her nearly the amount of candy her brother got, as a super-mature 12 year old, she possesses quite the negotiating advantage over her naive brother.

That’s why I was more than a little stressed about serving as mediator this year. The Man and I gave each other nervous glances as the kiddos emptied their bags and started sorting their candy. The Boy eyed his sister somewhat suspiciously as she took in his enormous pile sugary goodness. I was just bracing for disaster when The Man stepped to the table. He started sorting the candy according to type with each type having a point value. The Boy, naturally, would have more points to “spend.”. After all, he had put forth the greater Halloween effort. The Girl, on the other hand, was allowed to exercise her strength in suggesting ridiculously low point values for the candy she liked best. The system was beautiful, and, more importantly, there was hardly any bickering and nothing but forward progress! The whole thing was over pretty quick and without a single tear.

Later that night, I complimented The Man for the way he prevented The Candy Swap from becoming The Candy War. He shrugged one shoulder and said “I just pushed them towards a Nash Equilibrium. If The Boy recognized The Girl’s position and she recognized his, there was no need for argument. They stuck to their strengths and went with it.”

So today, I’m thankful for The Man, who uses economic game theory with our kiddos. (And I’m a little bit thankful to John Nash, too.)

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