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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Thomas Schelling and Gameplanning vs. Playcalling

Thomas Schelling, along with Robert Aumann, was honored this week with the nobel prize in economics for his work in Game Theory--or "interactive decision theory". An amazing mind, his books are also extremely readable (i.e. unlike much game theory, they do not overwhelm you with the mathematics).

Since he won I browsed around the web a bit, and, thanks to Marginal Revolution, here is a lecture he gave on the theory of self-restraint.

I suggest reading the essay, as it touches on a variety of interesting and at times troubling issues of self-restraint and individual and public choice. It addresses the boundaries of human capacity and consequences of our abilities and limitations when making decisions.

Schelling begins his lecture:

A few years ago I saw again, after nearly fifty years, the original Moby Dick, an early talkie in black and white. Ahab, in a bunk below deck after his leg is severed by the whale, watches the ship’s blacksmith approach with a red-hot iron which, only slightly cooled by momentary immersion in a bucket of water, is to cauterize his stump. As three seamen hold him he pleads not to be burnt, begging in horror as the blacksmith throws back the blanket. And as the iron touches his body he spews out the apple that he has been chewing, in the most awful scream that at age twelve I had ever heard. Nobody doubts that the sailors who held him did what they had to do, and the blacksmith too. When the story resumes there is no sign that he regrets having been cauterized or bears any grievance toward the men who, rather than defend him against the hot iron, held him at the blacksmith’s mercy. They were not protecting him from an involuntary reflex. And he was not unaware of the medical consequences of an uncauterized wound. Until the iron touched him he knew exactly what was afoot. It was a moment of truth. He was unmistakably all there. He made his petition in clear and understandable language. They had neither personal interest nor legal obligation to subject him to torture. And they disregarded his plea. When the iron struck he went out of his mind, still able, though, to communicate with perfect fidelity that all he wanted was the pain to stop. While the iron was burning his body we might declare him to have been not fully present, but until that instant it is hard to claim that he didn’t understand better than we do what the stakes were.

Ahab and his wound dramatize a phenomenon that, usually not so terrifying, all of us have observed in others and most have observed in ourselves. It is behaving as if two selves were alternately in command. A familiar example is someone who cannot get up when the alarm goes off. [He also mentions examples like how we do not keep candy or alcohol in the house because of expectation of our own future weakness. A poignant example he uses is someone who attempts suicide.]

I don't want to misconstrue Schelling's lecture--it gets much further afield than anything here--but while reading it I was struck with the classic two-self dichotomy that every offensive coordinator in football must deal with: the gameplanner and the playcaller. (We could even probably say the 1st quarter coach vs. the 4th quarter coach, but that is a different discussion.)

Posed with similar circumstances and problems, even the exact same level of information, the in-game you and the weekday you would likely give very different answers. Bill Walsh has often talked about the advantage of scripting plays and playcalling in detached, relaxed circumstances where logic can dictate vs. the insanity of a game situation.

One of the implications is that we must take turns as Ahab and as the crew, holding each other down to see us through what our immediate self vocally rejects. Even going so far as to override us when we are at our weakest. While not as dramatic as Moby Dick or even some of Schelling's other scenarios, it is an interesting view.

Further, a gameplan can be seen as a form of contract with our football team and the other coaches that guarantees that we will stick to what has been decided collectively and with the most information possible. While it is a blueprint for attacking your opponent it is also there to guard against you suddenly becoming Hal Mumme and throwing 50 times when, as a staff, you'd decided to be a lot more like Woody Hayes that game.

The obvious caveat is that a gameplan is contingency based, much of it depends on what your opponent does. But, a well crafted gameplan can still handle these scenarios and be created in a detached setting. In Schelling's language, created by your week-day self.


Ted C is Me said...

Chris: This is far too important to languish unseen on your blog...we need a (strategy/gameplan/game-theoretical solution) to get you on people's reading lists...

Chris said...

My hits have been pretty solid and growing the last few months, but I'm all ears for suggestions on increasing my readership. The google thing is irritating.

Chris said...

...I suppose the other option is to get me a book deal. You can work on that Ted. :)

Zennie Abraham said...

Hey Chris, let's get back to football've gone weeks without good content!