Interstellar, Game Theory and Design of Incentives

How designing proper incentive can drive future behaviours and cultural changes

Anmol Mohan

The unexamined life is not worth living - Socrates

In the movie Interstellar, Dr. Mann invites Cooper and co. to his planet by sharing a lot of data about potential life. Later they find that Dr. Mann was tricking them for survival. His planet had no possibility of life. He just needed a vehicle to return. During those events, he fights Cooper and leaves him to die. However, in an act that can be seen as the prevalence of righteousness, Dr. Brand intervenes at the last moment. Most people will take the moral lessons and walk away. However, a deeper issue lurks in that see-through curtain of common wisdom - Why didn't NASA see this coming?

Cheating vs. Cooperation

In-Game theory, two strategies are fundamental to any analysis of situations - Cheating and Cooperating. Cheaters are the players who will try to maximize their rewards even if it comes at an expanse of others. Whereas Cooperative players try to maximize the rewards of the group that they are part of.

Dr. Mann was the cheater in this scenario. Withholding information from the group. Ready to throw the team members down the drain, to maximize his payoffs.

Cooper, on the other hand, was cooperative (is it why he is called Coop?). He wanted to find solutions which are win-win for everyone involved. The first thing to note, if Dr. Mann was a genuine leader, he would have understood this about Cooper and Dr. Brand. Rather than leading him to his death, he could have just admitted his mistake and made peace. Yes, it would be revealed that he is not the hero that everyone thought he was. But that will be evident in either case. But he chose the most destructive strategy, which is evidence that he was not thinking this through.

Secondly, no person is a cheater in every situation, and no one cooperative in all scenarios. Cheaters can change their behaviors as and when they learn more information. Cooperative people make mistakes and often choose cheating due to fear, conformity, or beliefs. So just saying that Dr. Mann is a cheater, does not explain what lead him to be a cheater.

Lastly, according to game theory, one of the reasons why someone cheats is that they don't have a long-term vision. They cannot see sufficiently far in the future. Hence, they fail to consider the payoffs of future games, leading to a faulty short-term decision.

The Google Incentives

Detour. Why does Google have incentives like 20% time off to do the projects that you like? That sounds counterintuitive to a capitalist overlord who wants maximum productivity from their workers.

The reason is, some overlords can see in the future. They know that the company cannot do the same thing and expect growth. If a company has to sustain for long periods, they need to innovate. They need to break the mold of their current operations and introduce new elements. That is the only way to create a long-lasting empire.

But here is the kicker - the employees, who do not have that kind of vision in their minds, also have some minor vision of their own. They want to experiment, they want new experiences, they want a way to stamp their identity. If you combine the two ambitions, you can create a win-win situation.

By giving 20% time off to the innovative teammates, the company is achieving its vision of a new product line. And the teammates can fuel their entrepreneurial passion, in a safe environment, without giving up any comfort.

And it works. That is how Gmail and AWS were born. You can find a lot of examples of the innovative design of incentives. These are all counterintuitive on the surface. But when analyzed with a long-term view of the future, they all make sense.

Design of Incentives

In any company, the vision comes from the founders/leaders. Not everyone at SpaceX is motivated by a future on Mars. But when Elon Musk gave that vision to the company, motivated team members saw that as an opportunity for their own lives. That is why the design of incentives is so important. It ensures that people get what they want when the company gets what it wants.

There is a need for a clear definition of motivations for each person in a team. If their motivations are not fully aligned, the company needs to have processes that can take care of the educational gap. Lastly, there needs to be a clear and honest vision that is big enough to accommodate the smaller visions of individuals.

Dr. Mann turned out a cheater because he had lost faith in the future. His motivation was to be a hero. He never considered the possibility that he will not succeed. This is a failure of NASA to choose a leader who is afraid of failing. NASA had a clear vision for humanity which was strong. However, that is not what was motivating Dr. Mann.

At some point, there was a clash in the visions. NASA did not foresee the desire to survive in a dying human being. They neither educated Dr. Mann before choosing him the leader. Nor did they create any incentives which can help with the situation. (For example - they could have planned for remaining astronauts to contact and reach the one who has found the possibility of life.)

Cooper cooperated because NASA's vision and his vision of keeping his children alive were in perfect alignment. Incentivizing him with that strategy worked in making him leave his home.

Dr. Mann was not the only cheater at NASA. Dr. Brand Sr. also cheated because he was also motivated by being a hero, not really with the vision for humanity. It points to severe cultural issues at NASA of the Interstellar universe.

Movie Analysis

Anmol Mohan

I am just trying to make sense of this world. I am interested in the hardest puzzles like Consciousness, Humanity and Multiverse. Sharing my honest learning during this journey.