Improv skills lead to success

Stag Hunt Across Species

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In the Stag Hunt, also known as the Assurance Game or the Coordination Game, two hunters have the option of going after a hare or a stag. If a hunter targets a hare, he will get one for a small payoff every day. If both hunters go after a stag, they will each receive a much larger payoff, but if you target a stag and the other hunter goes after a hare, you will get nothing. Your choice as a player is whether to go for the reliable but small payoff or the larger, riskier payoff.

As with most of the other classic 2 x 2 games, we assume that the two hunters can’t communicate. At least, not so that they can coordinate their efforts before they choose which strategy to follow on a given day. What they can see, however, are the payoffs both for themselves and for the other hunter after they play a round of the game. This situation leads to some very interesting outcomes, especially when you consider it across species.

The authors of a paper titled “Responses to the Assurance Game in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans,” using equivalent procedures, tested whether capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees, or humans would perform better at the Assurance Game. The research team chose these three sets of primates because they all show tendencies toward cooperation in their natural environment. What made their research interesting was that they did not allow the humans to talk while they were being tested.

As you might expect, the humans performed better at the task than either the chimpanzees or the capuchin monkeys, but the difference was not as large as one might expect. Specifically, the researchers found that the humans who discovered the hare-hare approach thought that they had beaten the game and were always getting a reliable payoff. Game theorists call this approach the risk dominant strategy. Once the players achieve a reliable outcome, they tend not to move away from it and explore alternate possibilities.

The paper’s authors summarized their results this way:

Finally, despite being the species for which the highest frequency of pairs achieved the payoff dominant outcome, even among humans fewer than 20% in pairs did so (this increases to 27% when borderline pairs are included). An additional 38% of pairs achieved the risk dominant outcome (hare-hare), and 12% matched their partner. It is worth reiterating that despite success of humans compared with the other primates, a nontrivial proportion of pairs failed to achieve the payoff-dominant outcome. This underscores the difficulty of finding outcomes when the typical human procedures (instructions, payoff matrices, pretest for understanding) are absent, common handicaps for nonhuman species.

Obtaining the highest possible payoff from any venture, whether it is in improv or in business, means taking risks. Even in this artificial situation, in which communication was limited, some pairs of humans managed to find the payoff-dominant outcome for the Stag Hunt experiment. The problem was that many of them did not. As the authors of the study note, this is most likely a case of humans being risk averse. In an improv context, being risk averse might mean always asking for the same type of suggestions or doing the same type of scene, regardless of which suggestion you get. Some so-called improv groups even get a single suggestion from the audience, use it once by stating it during their scene, and then do the rest of the scene according to a script. It’s a cheat, one that takes a lot of the fun out of doing your performances unless you change the script every night, but it does reduce the risk of having something terribly wrong and not entertaining your audience. Over time, however, taking larger risks will yield greater rewards as long as you have competent individuals on the stage with you.


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