Howard’s Paradoxes of Rationality

Nigel Howard Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behaviour The Peace Research Studies Series, MIT Press, 1971

Introducing Howard’s Metagame Analysis.

[The] aim of his work is to produce a technique that can be used to resolve real-life, real-time conflict situations and to investigate political and social interactions between decision makers. Such applications have in fact already been made, and the book contains, for example, an analysis of the Vietnam conflict.


[The] approach is “nonquantitative”. One reason is that numerical utilities usually cannot be estimated in a reliable manner in the real world. Another is that some of the most powerful methods developed by twentieth-century mathematics (those, for example, in topology, modern algebra, and set theory) are nonquantitative, and their application to social science, with its many “unmeasurables,” is clearly appropriate and potentially of enormous value.

[The] author proves several theorems that assert that in some cases to be rational is to be wrong, that irrationality is sometimes more effective, and, even, “that to be rational in two-person games is usually to be a sucker.” He identifies three separate breakdowns of rationality. A consideration of “metarationality” leads to similar conclusions at that higher level of decision making.

Of special interest are the sections on the existentialist axiom, the free will argument, and the axiom of choice, and the paradoxes implicit in the use of these concepts.

It led to drama theory as part of confrontation analysis, with particular application to identifying dilemmas of the kind that simpler theories often ignore or deny, rather than prescribing supposedly ‘optimal’ solutions.

Dave Marsay

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