The game of chicken, also known as the hawk-dove or snowdrift game, is an influential model of conflict for two players in game theory. The principle of the game is that while each player prefers not to yield to the other, the worst possible outcome occurs when both players do not yield.

The name ‘chicken’ has its origins in a game in which two drivers drive towards each other on a collision course: one must swerve, or both may die in the crash, but if one driver swerves and the other does not, the one who swerved will be called a ‘chicken,’ meaning a coward; this terminology is most prevalent in political science and economics.

The name ‘Hawk-Dove’ refers to a situation in which there is a competition for a shared resource and the contestants can choose either conciliation or conflict; this terminology is most commonly used in biology and evolutionary game theory. From a game-theoretic point of view, ‘chicken’ and ‘hawk-dove’ are identical; the different names stem from parallel development of the basic principles in different research areas. The game has also been used to describe the mutual assured destruction of nuclear warfare, especially the sort of brinkmanship involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The phrase ‘game of chicken’ is also used as a metaphor for a situation where two parties engage in a showdown where they have nothing to gain, and only pride stops them from backing down. Bertrand Russell famously compared the game of Chicken to nuclear brinkmanship: ‘Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship.’ This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practiced by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’ It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’, and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt. As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.’

Brinkmanship involves the introduction of an element of uncontrollable risk: even if all players act rationally in the face of risk, uncontrollable events can still trigger the catastrophic outcome. In the ‘chickie run’ scene from the film ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ this happens when Corey Allen’s character cannot escape from the car and dies in the crash. The opposite scenario occurs in ‘Footloose’ where Ren McCormack is stuck in his tractor and hence wins the game as he can’t play ‘chicken.’ The basic game-theoretic formulation of Chicken has no element of variable, potentially catastrophic, risk, and is also the contraction of a dynamic situation into a one-shot interaction.

The hawk-dove version of the game imagines two players (animals) contesting an indivisible resource who can choose between two strategies, one more escalated than the other. They can use threat displays (play Dove), or physically attack each other (play Hawk). If both players choose the Hawk strategy, then they fight until one is injured and the other wins. If only one player chooses Hawk, then this player defeats the Dove player. If both players play Dove, there is a tie, and each player receives a payoff lower than the profit of a hawk defeating a dove.

One tactic in the game is for one party to signal their intentions convincingly before the game begins. For example, if one party were to ostensibly disable their steering wheel just before the match, the other party would be compelled to swerve. This shows that, in some circumstances, reducing one’s own options can be a good strategy. One real-world example is a protester who handcuffs himself to an object, so that no threat can be made which would compel him to move (since he cannot move). Another example, taken from fiction, is found in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ In that film, the Russians sought to deter American attack by building a ‘doomsday machine,’ a device that would trigger world annihilation if Russia was hit by nuclear weapons or if any attempt were made to disarm it. However, the Russians failed to signal — they deployed their doomsday machine covertly.

Players may also make non-binding threats to not swerve. This has been modeled explicitly in the Hawk-Dove game. Such threats work, but must be wastefully costly if the threat is one of two possible signals (‘I will not swerve’/’I will swerve’), or they will be costless if there are three or more signals (in which case the signals will function as a game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’).

‘Chicken’ and ‘Brinkmanship’ are often used synonymously in the context of conflict, but in the strict game-theoretic sense, ‘brinkmanship’ refers to a strategic move designed to avert the possibility of the opponent switching to aggressive behavior. The move involves a credible threat of the risk of irrational behavior in the face of aggression.

Like ‘Chicken,’ the ‘War of attrition’ game models escalation of conflict, but they differ in the form in which the conflict can escalate. Chicken models a situation in which the catastrophic outcome differs in kind from the agreeable outcome, e.g., if the conflict is over life and death. War of attrition models a situation in which the outcomes differ only in degrees, such as a boxing match in which the contestants have to decide whether the ultimate prize of victory is worth the ongoing cost of deteriorating health and stamina.

The term ‘Schedule Chicken’ is used in project management and software development circles. The condition occurs when two or more areas of a product team claim they can deliver features at an unrealistically early date because each assumes the other teams are stretching the predictions even more than they are. This pretense continually moves forward past one project checkpoint to the next until feature integration begins or just before the functionality is actually due. The practice of  ‘Schedule Chicken’ often results in contagious schedules slips due to the inter-team dependencies and is difficult to identify and resolve, as it is in the best interest of each team not to be the first bearer of bad news. The psychological drivers underlining the ‘Schedule Chicken’ behavior in many ways mimic the Hawk-Dove or Snowdrift model of conflict.


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