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September 16, 2003

John Bridgeland

I spoke this morning at the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke later, as did John Bridgeland, Executive Director of USA Freedom Corps and advisor to President Bush. After Mr. Bridgeland spoke, someone in the audience rose to say that he had just seen a car blatantly stolen outside the hotel, and no one (except himself) had done anything to try to stop it. His implication: We need to teach young people good values, just like in the good old days. The standard politician would take the bait and say that morals have declined, it's a terrible thing, but this administration is committed to character education. John Bridgeland, however, is a thoughtful and sophisticated guy, and he immediately recalled the game-theoretical explanation of cases like this. For each person who witnesses the crime, the worst outcome is that no one does anything to stop it. But the second-worst outcome for each person is that he or she is the one who intervenes. Chart the situation on a game-theorist's grid, and you'll see that no one is likely to do anything. Mr. Bridgeland revealed that he was thinking about game theory when he called the situation outside the hotel a "chicken game." I found it appealing that he gave an answer that was interesting, probably true, and that didn't score him any political points. (By the way, chicken games offer the most useful advice ever generated by game theory. If you need immediate assistance, don't shout "help," to a crowd. Pick an individual arbitrarily and say, "You, please help me.")

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