Academic Committee


  • Academic Committee
  • Goals and Interactive Activities
  • Game Theory
  • Games We Play
  • An Imperfect World
  • Evolutionary Processes
  • Beehavior Patterns
  • Toward Understanding


Academic Committee


Goals and Interactive Activities.

Founded in 1991, the Hebrew University's Center for the Study of Rationality is a unique venture in which faculty, students and guests join forces to explore the rational basis of decision-making. Participants in the Center's activities are looking at how rationality-which, in decision-making, means the process by which the indivdual chooses the path of maximum benefit - responds to real-world situations where individuals with different goals interact.

The range of the Center's scientific activities is unparalleled in the world. Whereas most interdisciplinary centers aim to promote cooperation between researchers in two or three different fields, the Center for the Study of Rationality is a truly multidisciplinary enterprise, drawing on the talents of outstanding scholars from 13 different departments, in four faculties of the University. Among the Center's members are top scholars from the fields of mathematics, economics, psychology, biology, political science, education, computer science, philosophy, business, statistics, and law. This richness of perspective is a vital aspect of the Center's audacious mission: to create universal models that describe interactive decision-making as it occurs in every one of these disciplines - and beyond.

The Center challenges academics - through its workshops and conferences - to break free of the governing rubric of their individual specialties and, instead, to direct their gaze toward the wider horizon of interactive dynamics. Presentations, which are attended by a broad interdisciplinary public in addition to Center members, explore an exciting range of concrete and theoretical topics. For example, one recent seminar concerned "The Economic Efficiency of Paternalism," while another was entitled "Is Rationality Psychologically Feasible?" In addition to its colloquia, the Center hosts guest scholars from around the world and publishes a series of highly regarded Discussion Papers based on Center activities.

Game Theory.

At the core of the Center's work is Interactive Decision, or "Game," Theory. Interactive Decision Theory analyzes decision-making in terms of specific competitive and cooperative constructs, drawn from parlor games in which two or more players must make rational decisions in an effort to win. Game theoretic models are virtually limitless in the ways they can be applied to the real world; whether the "players" in question are competing animal populations, differing political ideologies, or opposing market forces, these theoretical paradigms have a unique ability to frame the dynamics of interaction in simple, universal terms.

While its work is largely theoretical in nature, the Center also sponsors two facilities that use innovative experimental methods to test developing theories. The first, called BEEHAVE, or Bee Behavior Laboratory, is devoted to the study of decision-making by bees, particularly as this relates to food-gathering strategies. The second, known as RATIOLAB, is a computerized laboratory for experiments in human interactive decision-making. Inaugurated in 1995 at a ceremony attended by four Nobel laureates, this facility, which is one of the most advanced in the world, allows up to 24 subjects to interact simultaneously in a controlled environment.

In order to get real responses, RATIOLAB subjects (mainly students) are given an incentive: they play for real money. If they interact according to rational decision-making schemes, they can make a profit. But group dynamics have a way of affecting rationality, particularly when it comes to money. "Ultimatum" is a game scenario in which two players must agree on how to split a certain amount of cash. Although it is in a player's best interest to accept any offer of free money, cultural norms control how little a player is willing to accept. This same experiment, performed cooperatively at centers in Jerusalem, Tokyo, Pittsburgh, and Lublijana, allows researchers to quantify - according to population groups - exactly where irrationality creeps into the equation.

Game We Play.

Game theory, as a discipline, is only a half-century old. It traces its beginnings to a chance meeting at Princeton University between two refugees from Hitler's Europe - John von Neumann, the famous Hungarian-Jewish mathematician, and the Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern. Their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, published in 1944, captured the popular imagination with its elegant, intuitive use of gaming structures to describe market events. The book was a runaway hit; within days it was featured on the front page of The New York Times - as unusual an achievement for a scholarly work then as it is today.

In the post-war period, game theory moved beyond the economic realm into geopolitics. The development of the atomic bomb had transformed the modern battlefield into a non-zero-sum game - where one player's total destruction is not necessarily the other's "win." With their conventional decision-making methods all but obsolete, generals called on game theorists to clarify - and even to create - new rules of engagement. Research organizations such as the RAND Corporation, which provided the strategic underpinnings of the Cold War, worked on game-theoretic models.

An Imperfect World.

One of the most striking things about interactive decision theory is its ability to address both the rational and irrational aspects of the decision-making process. While a computer can master the finer points of chess, it cannot be programmed to understand human quirks - those culturally based and seemingly inscrutable patterns of interaction that determine whether a player will tend toward reward or punishment, cooperation or competition, selfishness or altruism. The multidisciplinary cooperation sponsored by the Center, on the other hand, is helping game theory to move beyond the mechanistic limitations of such supercomputers as IBM's Deep Blue. Working together, game theorists and social scientists are incorporating the irrational aspects of decision-making into the larger picture. Through this cooperating, they are reaching new theoretical heights and creating a realistic model of the evolution of patterns of interaction in an imperfect world.

Evolutionary Processes.

In the early 1970s, game theory began influencing ecological modeling, providing a framework for the analysis of those "decisions" occurring in animal and plant populations that shape the process of evolution. Through these and other advances, a startling picture began to emerge. The theories characterizing decision-making in economics and politics, it was found, were quantitatively identical to the patterns observed in the natural process of evolution.

This realization proved to be the point of departure for a wider breakthrough: it seemed that in a wide range of interactive situations - even those untouched by a rational, guiding hand - events unfolded according to set, universal rules. The implications were as clear as they were tantalizing: if theorists could only identify the game being played, they could use existing game models to tip each "player's" hand. In some situations, game theory offered the power to make quantitative predictions, even when the thought processes of the "players" were unknown.

Today, game theory is being influenced by new developments in the biological sciences. Recent advances have unleashed an avalanche of new data directly relevant to the study of interactive situations bounded by genetic rules of behavior. The scientific activities at the Center for the Study of Rationality reflect the importance of the new biology to the Center's work. Members of the Center are consulting with brain researchers, molecular geneticists and others in order to gain a clearer understanding of the rules, as well as the wider "game plan" of living systems.

By strengthening the ties between theory and practice, the Center is honing the analytic "edge" of interactive decision theory. This multidisciplinary undertaking forges two major paths to advancement. First, the improvement of decision-making models renders them more useful as predictors of interactive behavior. Second, the continuing adventures of decision theory in the "real world" - of economics, political science and biology, among other fields - have an important rebound effect: they provide the Center's analytical core with new data which sharpens its theoretical methods.

Beehavior Patterns.

In a glassed-in hall on the Hebrew University's Edmond J. Safra Campus Giva't Ram , a bee flits between what look like upside-down plastic tubes, which are decorated with colored rings of different sizes. Occasionally the bee stops to draw liquid through a hole in the top of one of the tubes. Did the bee tend toward cylinders with a certain level of liquid? Was it attracted by a particular color? Did the bee's decision-making pattern change over time?

This unusual set-up is found in BEEHAVE, a bee behavior laboratory associated with the Center for the Study of Rationality. Inaugurated in 1994, BEEHAVE is devoted to the study of decision-making by bees, particularly with regard to foraging for food. The plastic tubes are more than just artificial flowers - they are fully computerized devices which record bee visits and control how much food is provided and when. This "virtual flower bed" provides a perfectly regulated environment for the observation of a bee's feeding habits.

The implications of this study, however, go far beyond an individual bee's lunch choices. Controlled observation of decision-making by bees may provide a parallel for the study of human behavior: how people make optimal, consistent decisions. But decision-making is exclusive neither to bees nor to humans. It applies to the genetic makeup of the individual where an evolutionary selection process weeds out unsuccessful traits and behavior patterns. It is also part of the behavior pattern of economic entities, and it even applies to machines, like computers that "decide" how a network will share information.

Toward Understanding.

The Center for the Study of Rationality has a unique contribution to make, not only to the Hebrew University, but to all humanity. By bringing together an outstanding group of researchers and theorists from all walks of academic life, the Center has created a stimulating and significant new model of multidisciplinary study. By developing methodologies that apply in principle to all interactive situations, the Center is providing a new way to analyze the past, describe the present, and predict the future. And by emphasizing the broad scope of experience that can be observed through the lenses of interactive decision theory, the Center is well on the way to realizing one of its fundamental goals: creating a more refined understanding of rational decision-making as it occurs in our complex world.