Game of chicken

From Academic Kids

The game of chicken (also referred to as playing chicken) is a "game" in which two players engage in an activity that will result in serious damage unless one of them backs down. It is commonly applied to the use of motor vehicles whereby each drives a vehicle of some sort towards the other, and the first to swerve loses and is humiliated as the "chicken". In practice, this sort of game, if played at all, is most likely to be played amongst adolescents or aggressive young men, though it is not at all popular. The principle of the game is to create pressure until one person backs down.

The phrase game of chicken may also be used as a metaphor for a situation where two parties engage in a showdown where they have nothing to gain, and only pride stops them from backing down. Bertrand Russell famously compared the game of chicken to nuclear brinkmanship.

One of the earliest examples of a game of chicken is in the film Rebel Without a Cause, though in that version the players drive two cars towards a cliff, and the first to jump out is the "chicken". The version where the players drive towards each other is now regarded as the standard version of the game. It is more likely to appear as a plot device in movies or other fiction than real life.


Chicken and game theory

The modern version of the game has been the subject of serious research in game theory, in which it is closely associated with non-zero-sum games. The underlying principle is an important method of negotiation. It can be described as a strategy in which each party delays making concessions until the deadline is imminent. The psychological pressure may force a negotiator to concede to avoid a negative outcome. It can be a very dangerous tactic; if neither party swerves, a crash is certain to occur.

Because the "loss" of swerving is so trivial compared to the crash that occurs if nobody swerves, the reasonable strategy would seem to be to swerve before a crash is likely. Yet, knowing this, if one believes one's opponent to be reasonable, one may well decide not to swerve at all, in the belief that he will be reasonable and decide to swerve, leaving the other player the winner. This unstable strategy can be formalized by saying there is more than one Nash equilibrium for the game, a Nash equilibrium being a pair of strategies for which neither player gains by changing his own strategy while the other stays the same. (In this case, the equilibria are the two situations wherein one player swerves while the other does not.)

One tactic in the game is for one party to signal their intentions convincingly before the game begins. For example, if one party were to ostentatiously disable their steering wheel just before the match, the other party would be more likely to swerve. This shows that, in some circumstances, reducing one's own options can be a good strategy. One real-world example is a protester who handcuffs himself to an object, so that no threat can be made which would compel him to move (since he cannot move).

The payoff matrix for the game of chicken looks like this, where cooperation is swerving and defection is driving straight:

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 0, 0 -1, +1
Defect +1, -1 -20, -20

Of course, this model assumes that one chooses one's strategy before playing and sticks to it - an unrealistic assumption, since if a player sees the other swerving early, he can drive straight, no matter what his earlier plans.

Under this model, and in contrast to the prisoner's dilemma, where one action is always best, in the game of chicken one wants to do the opposite of whatever the other player is doing.

Hawk-Dove game

The game is also known as the Hawk-Dove game in evolutionary game theory. In this biological setting, two players can choose between two strategies in order to determine how to share a common resource. It can either choose to act as an aggressive hawk or a pacific dove. If both players choose the hawk strategy, they fight and injure each other. If only one player chooses hawk, then this player defeats the pacific strategy of the dove. If both players play dove, there is a tie in profit, but the profit is lower than the profit of a hawk defeating a dove. In this biological setting, playing the dove or hawk strategy is analogous to cooperating or defecting respectively.


  • Deutsch, M. The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1973.
  • Moore, C. W. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1986.

External links

Topics in game theory
Evolutionarily stable strategy - Mechanism design - No-win - Winner's curse - Zero-sum
Games: Prisoner's dilemma - Chicken - Stag hunt - Ultimatum game - Matching pennies ...
Related topics: Mathematics - Economics - Behavioral economics - Evolutionary biology - Evolutionary game theory - Population genetics - Behavioral ecology
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de:Chicken Game

es:Juego del gallina ja:チキンゲーム


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