Book Review: Rock, Paper, Scissors

By Alex Dixon | December 1, 2008 | 0 comments

by Len Fisher
Basic Books, 2008, 288 pages

Game theory studies how we maximize gain in competitive situations, assuming that self-interest controls why people make decisions. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, physicist Len Fisher starts by demonstrating the limits of game theory: What’s best for you isn’t always what’s best for everyone else, and that discrepancy can ultimately undermine your own self-interest. For instance, it may be easier for you to spit gum on the sidewalk than throw it in the trash, but if everyone did that, all our shoes would be sticky.

The good news is that human beings are much more cooperative than some of us might assume. Fisher uses game theory to show how cooperative behaviors have evolved to escape the traps created by selfishness, and how cooperation persists even in the most difficult circumstances.

For models of real-life solutions, Fisher looks to various games. For example, the game “I Cut and You Choose” exploits self-interest in order to create cooperation: When slicing a cake, one person cuts two pieces, then the other person chooses the piece they want for themselves. Assuming the cutter likes cake, she has incentive to make both pieces equal. Fisher suggests employing the same strategy to solve territorial disputes between countries.
As one might expect, many of Fisher’s game-theory solutions seem a trifle abstract and idealistic: What happens when three people want cake? Even so, Rock, Paper Scissors is a wonderfully entertaining introduction to game theory and the science of cooperation.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Alex Dixon is a Greater Good editorial assistant.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement