Strategically influencing an uncertain future

Alain Govaert*, Ming Cao*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Many of today’s most pressing societal concerns require decisions which take into account a distant and uncertain future. Recent developments in strategic decision-making suggest that individuals, or a small group of individuals, can unilaterally influence the collective outcome of such complex social dilemmas. However, these results do not account for the extent to which decisions are moderated by uncertainty in the probability or timing of future outcomes that characterise the valuation of a (distant) uncertain future. Here we develop a general framework that captures interactions among uncertainty, the resulting time-inconsistent discounting, and their consequences for decision-making processes. In deterministic limits, existing theories can be recovered. More importantly, new insights are obtained into the possibilities for strategic influence when the valuation of the future is uncertain. We show that in order to unilaterally promote and sustain cooperation in social dilemmas, decisions of generous and extortionate strategies should be adjusted to the level of uncertainty. In particular, generous payoff relations cannot be enforced during periods of greater risk (which we term the “generosity gap”), unless the strategic enforcer orients their strategy towards a more distant future by consistently choosing “selfless” cooperative decisions; likewise, the possibilities for extortion are directly limited by the level of uncertainty. Our results have implications for policies that aim to solve societal concerns with consequences for a distant future and provides a theoretical starting point for investigating how collaborative decision-making can help solve long-standing societal dilemmas.
Original languageEnglish
Article number12169
Number of pages8
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22-Jul-2020



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