Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The shadow of the future

The shadow of the future cuts both ways, says James Fearon (1998). The shadow of the future is a basic game theory concept; essentially it expresses the idea that we behave differently when we expect to interact with someone repeatedly over time (and hence expect to be able to punish and be punished for misbehavior). The classic take on this (which Fearon describes) is that the shadow of the future is good for cooperation; it allows players to escape prisoners' dilemma situations by using conditional retaliation strategies. This should mean they can sustain cooperation in certain situations where repeated interaction is expected even if they couldn't have in a one-off situation. The implication is that international negotiations should try to set up situations of repeated interactions.

Fearon suggests, however, that the shadow of the future could also be bad for successful negotiation, if it leads nations to bargain harder (such that they might not find space for agreement or might take a long time to do so) because they know they'll be locked into the results of the negotiation for a long time, over repeated interactions.

So the shadow of the future is good for negotiation - except when it's bad. Fearon is glad to have cleared that up for you, policy-makers!

(I mock because I love. Fearon is a big name and he's pretty cool. And he's right! The shadow of the future does cut both ways. International relations are complicated; film at 11. Sadly, this particular conclusion doesn't happen to help advance my work; I was wondering if it would get into other issues of repeated interaction that I'm interested in, but thus far it doesn't seem to.)


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  2. Social capital defined as "habits of cooperation" could fall under "repeated interaction" which you are interested in. Clay Shirky says in his book Here Comes Everybody that "social capital is the shadow of the future on a societal scale."

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