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October 22, 2010
Divorce and the Nuclear Option
In the movie, as in real life, Nash wins the Nobel Prize for his contribution to game theory. His hypothesis, called the Nash equilibrium, describes a situation in a game or negotiation where nobody loses. And yet, each player chooses the best deal possible for himself, given the positions of the other parties.
As an example: Two countries could independently choose a nuclear strategy that virtually ensures nuclear peace, simply by guaranteeing that both nations would be obliterated if either side ever launches a missile. You may recognize that situation as the brinksmanship strategy that kept the United States and the USSR from destroying each other during the Cold War. Mutual assured destruction (M.A.D., for short) is a Nash equilibrium.
Divorcing couples have available another, closely related Nash equilibrium. Both spouses, acting rationally, get the best deal for themselves by keeping their big weapons — the litigating attorneys — in their silos. Either side can trigger a scorched-earth scenario by insisting on too much in the settlement. Or by simply unleashing the dogs of war and standing aside. As science commentators and teachers often observe about the Nash equilibrium, once you point it out, it seems obvious. If you think through your options, you see clearly what is in your interest, and that’s rarely the nuclear option. And trust me on this, my mediating partner Laura and I point this out ad nauseam during the course of a divorce mediation. Yet, more often than you’d expect, it falls on deaf ears.