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Using Game Theory for Conflict Resolution

The interdisciplinary field of game theory had its origins in a 1944 publication called, “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.” Since then, it has influenced government, business and some fields of scientific inquiry, but it is only now making its way into the church, where it can help faith community leaders guide groups to better outcomes.

The term “game” in game theory refers “a conflicted relationship with two or more players in which the actions of one player affect the actions of others,” according to an article by pastor Ken Evers-Hood of the Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Tualatin, Oregon, archived on Faith & Leadership, an online resource for faith community leaders created by Duke Divinity School. The point of game theory is to teach leaders to adequately understand all of the “players” in a given dynamic, especially in a dynamic of conflict. It lifts leaders out of the natural human tendency to “focus narrowly on themselves and their own interests,” especially when frustrated with other players whose interests are very different, and urges the to consider “all of the decisions each player can make at every point” to create a strategy.

“The point of game theory is not to focus on how others should be but on how they actually are,” Evers-Hood writes, which may come as “a bracing cup of cold water in the face, waking us up to [the] very real differences and possibilities present in our congregations.”

Discussion questions also help make this article a useful conversation starter for church leaders and adult or youth study groups. For more perspective on conflict and conflict management, see our feature article, “Managing Conflict Constructively.” Also see the wealth of resources we have available that deal with “church conflict.”

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