Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race in the late 1950s, Thomas Schelling’s book The Strategy of Conflict set forth his vision of game theory as a unifying framework for the social sciences. Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. These insights have proven to be of great relevance for conflict resolution and efforts to avoid war.
Schelling’s work prompted new developments in game theory and accelerated its use and application throughout the social sciences. Notably, his analysis of strategic commitments has explained a wide range of phenomena, from the competitive strategies of firms to the delegation of political decision power.
In many real-world situations, cooperation may be easier to sustain in a long-term relationship than in a single encounter. Analyses of short-run games are, thus, often too restrictive. Robert Aumann was the first to conduct a full-fledged formal analysis of so-called infinitely repeated games. His research identified exactly what outcomes can be upheld over time in long-run relations.
The theory of repeated games enhances our understanding of the prerequisites for cooperation: Why it is more difficult when there are many participants, when they interact infrequently, when interaction is likely to be broken off, when the time horizon is short or when others’ actions cannot be clearly observed. Insights into these issues help explain economic conflicts such as price wars and trade wars, as well as why some communities are more successful than others in managing common-pool resources. The repeated-games approach clarifies the raison d’être of many institutions, ranging from merchant guilds and organized crime to wage negotiations and international trade agreements.