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Tag: John Schiemann

Torture and game theory

The latest issue of Political Research Quarterly has an interesting and important exchange about the use of game theory to understand the effectiveness of torture for eliciting truthful information. In this post I summarize the discussion, which is quite instructive for illustrating the prejudices and misunderstandings people have about the role and utility of game theory as a tool to gain insights into the social world. In the original article, Schiemann builds a strategic incomplete-information game between a detainee (who can either posses valuable information or not, and be either ‘strong’ or ‘weak’) and a state which can be either ‘pragmatic’ (using torture only for valuable information) or ‘sadistic’ (torturing in all circumstances). There are two additional parameters capturing uncertainty about the value and completeness of the information provided by the detainee, and two styles of interrogation (providing leading evidence or not). The article then proceeds to identify the equilibria of the game, which turn out to be quite a few (six), and quite different – in some, truthful information is provided while in others, not; in some, torture is applied while in others, not; etc…. At this point you will be excused for wondering what’s the point of the formal modeling if it only shows that, depending on the parameters, different things are possible. Schiemann, however, makes a brilliant move by comparing each of these equilibria to some minimal normative standards that proponents of torture claim to uphold – namely, that torture should not be used on detainees who have provided all their information, that transmitted information should be generally reliable, and that in all cases only…