Depp movie Pirates of the Caribbean. And that’s what it means to behave culturally. Cultural patterns of behavior emerge as individuals tailor a toolkit of strategies to apply in various situations, without the need to calculate payoffs in detail. “Diverse cultures emerge not in spite of optimizing motivation,” Bednar and Page write, “but because of how those motivations are affected by incentives, cognitive constraints, and institutional precedents. Thus agents in different environments may play the same game differently.”15
The Michigan scientists tested this idea with computer simulations on a variety of games, giving the agents/players enough brain power to compute optimal strategies for any given game. In the various games, incentives for the self-interested agents differed, to simulate different environmental conditions. These multiple-game simulations show that game theory itself drives self-interested rational agents to adopt “cultural” patterns of behavior. This approach doesn’t explain everything about culture, of course, but it shows how playing games can illuminate aspects of society that at first glance seem utterly beyond game theory’s scope. And it suggests that the scope of sociophysics can be grandly expanded by incorporating game theory into its statistical physics formulations.
In any event, recent developments in the use of statistical physics in describing networks and society—and game theory’s intimate relationship with both—instill a suspicion that game theory and physics are somehow related in more than a superficial way. As game theory has become a unifying language for the social sciences, attempts by physicists to shed light on social science inevitably must encounter game theory. In fact, that’s exactly what has already happened in economics. Just yesterday, the latest issue of Physics Today arrived in my mail, with an article suggesting that economics may be “the next physical science.”
“The substantial contribution of physics to economics is still in an early stage, and we think it fanciful to predict what will ultimately be accomplished,” wrote the authors, Doyne Farner and Eric Smith of the Santa Fe Institute and Yale economist Martin