What is Drama Theory?

The Case of Oedipus - and the rest of us

Oedipus has learnt that the queen his wife, with whom he had four children, is his mother. He married her after he had unknowingly killed his father. He goes to the royal bedroom. He finds her hanging from a noose; she has killed herself. He cuts her down, takes two brooches from her dress and stabs his eyes, making himself blind.

This is Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Rex, written 2,400 years ago. How can we explain Oedipus’ choices? I mean to explain them using drama theory – a set of ideas that deals with psychology, personal relations, politics, business and war, as well as literature. It explains unreason and emotion as well as rational behavior, and unconscious as well as conscious urges. It’s both descriptive – explaining how we choose – and prescriptive, showing how we should choose, both for our own ends and others’. It is a fairly new theory – two books have appeared on it so far, plus a number of papers. In this book I will discuss and use methods that make drama-theoretic analysis stronger and simpler to use.

Publications on the subject:

Drama theory, as we use the term, refers to a discipline with a mathematical base—an extension of game theory. It was founded at the end of 1991 in a meeting at Sheffield Hallam University between Jim Bryant, Peter Bennett, Morris Bradley and myself. An immediate product was ‘Manifesto for a theory of drama and irrational choice’ (Howard, N., P. Bennett, J. Bryant and M. Bradley, Jour. Of the Operational Res. Soc. 44(1); 1992). My ‘Confrontation Analysis: How to Win Operations Other than War’ was published by the CCRP Press in 1999 (it’s downloadable for free from their website). Bryant’s ‘Six Dilemmas of Collaboration’ was published by Wiley in 2003.

Does drama apply to life?

This question arises at once. Oedipus Rex is a story. Why look at it instead of real life?

Drama theorists are interested in stories and in real life. We see both as drama. We use terms like ‘character’, ‘author’, ‘audience’, ‘scene-setting’, ‘climax’, etc, about both. We aim to give the same kind of insight into real life as you get from a good play: insights into how we solve, or fail to solve, conflicts.

A play gives you these insights intuitively. You see and feel something you are able to act on, even if you can’t say clearly what it is.

Drama theory gives conscious insight. You can say what you see. It offers words—theoretical terms—to say it with. This makes the insights more useful, or at least useful in new ways. Being able to say what the insights are, you can teach them and build systems on them. For example, conscious insight into how conflicts are resolved lets us build command and control systems that make war-fighters ‘do peace’ better—ie, help them stabilize post-conflict theaters

Conscious insight into how it works lets us apply the same system to business or government. Our aim: a scientific—ie, formal, transferable and testable—view of how emotion, rationality, irrationality, deceit, morality, conflict, self-realization and self-development help people solve problems and cooperate. Also, how they go wrong and cause fights.

We use the metaphor of drama in the same way as game theory uses the ‘game’ metaphor. Neither games nor drama are ‘real’. They’re role-playing tasks done for fun. Game theory works (where it’s applicable) because the structures found in competitive games occur in real life too. When this is the case, it helps to see life as a game and use game theory to analyses it. In the same way, but differently (because drama is richer than a game), drama theory finds things going on in real life—emotion, reason, unreason, debate, conflict and development leading to change in people’s values and beliefs—that occur in drama. It looks at those things as if they were in a play, and analyses them accordingly.

So we draw examples from real life and fiction. Fiction has advantages. You can know all that’s known about the case: it’s in the text. Thus, you can judge a drama-theoretic analysis better than real-life politics or business, which different people tell differently. Also, you may see things more clearly when less concerned to see the analysis come out in a way that seems to favor ‘your’ side.

Conflict, actual or potential, underlies all human relations – from love through business to war. It frames the way we think, even when talking to ourselves – which we generally do by taking sides in an imaginary conflict. Even when facing death, we see death as a decision-maker we are up against; we can’t help it, any more than we can help seeing a face in an object like a car. Whenever we’re in a serious spot, we think of ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, as facing one or more other decision-makers. We think and feel in terms of drama.

Drama Theory, Game Theory and Choice within a Fixed Frame (’Instrumental Rationality’)

Drama theory models life in the same way as game theory because it came from game theory. It takes game theory and adds something. It adds a deep analysis of the pre-play communication that precedes playing a game – without which the game, as a mutually understood interaction played out under mutually accepted assumptions (ie, an object of which there is ‘common knowledge’), could not, in many cases, exist.

Thus drama theory adds to game theory. At the same time, it takes away some of the need for game-theoretic analysis. Game theory tries to predict the outcome of a game played by ’rational’ players. But drama theory shows how would-be players, communicating with each other prior to a game, build up not only the game they are going to play, but also the outcome they expect from it – taking away the need to predict an outcome.

In addition, drama theory challenges the game theoretic concept of ‘rationality’ In analyzing pre-play communication, it jettisons the assumption that players know what they want, what others want, and what they and others can do about it, and that all these things are fixed. This is the game-theoretic assumption of what has been called ‘instrumental rationality’.

In sticking to this assumption, game theory is part of a wider trend in the human sciences called ‘rational choice theory’. This trend embraces economics and large areas of political science and business decision-making. It tries as far as it can to understand conscious choice by assuming that decision-makers’ ends (what they want) and possible choices (what they can do) are fixed, given and known to the decision-makers—ie, by assuming that choice is instrumentally rational.

Now, to look at dealings between people as a game is, indeed, to focus on this—on how they pursue given ends within given means. That’s what a game does: it sets up that focus. It gives each player a fixed set of possible choices (sequential or simultaneous, continuous or discrete), says what outcomes (stochastic or deterministic) are expected from each mix of choices and fixes for each player and each pair of possible outcomes which of the pair that player should want (prefer). It’s against the rules to change any of this. To change what you want—for example, to decide you want another player to win—is as much not playing the game as to change what you can do—for example, by deciding to move another player’s pieces.

Within such a fixed setup, there’s nothing to do but try to guess what choices others will make and, given those choices, to ‘optimize’—ie, try to get the outcome you most want. This is ‘rational choice’. Rational choice theorists try to assume that people do this not only in games, but in life.

Drama theory does not. It allows players to have pre-play contacts that are ‘rational’ in a wider sense—the sense in which we talk about ‘rational debate’ and ‘rationalization’.

Pre-play communications are assumed to be emotional as well as rational. They change what players want and think. In other words, they change the game that will, in the end, be played—as well as largely determining the outcome expected by the players. These changes lead, if all goes as it ‘should’, to an ending that satisfies emotion as well as instrumental rationality. Not only are people ‘optimizing’, given their ends and means. They have also accepted that they can’t now change their own and others’ ends and means.

Such an ending is rational in the rational-choice-theory sense. But the changes by which it’s reached can’t be. They can’t, because they are changes in choice-makers’ fixed ideas about their means and ends—objects that rational choice theory takes as unchangeable.

Such non-instrumentally rational changes are dramatic. They touch players’ emotional definition and re-definition of themselves and their plight. Drama theory looks at how such dramatic change takes place on-stage and off. It models it with as much rigor and generality as rational-choice theorists use to analyses instrumental rationality.

Rational choice theory as the starting point for drama theory

Though drama theorists focus on non-instrumentally rational changes such as self-realization and self-development, we don’t throw out rational choice theory. We take rational choice seriously and draw consequences from it. Here is a ‘thumbnail sketch’ of our method.

Thus, starting from the assumption that characters try to be instrumentally rational within a fixed frame, drama theory shows how they’re led to behave irrationally and to change the frame, so creating the possibility of rational behavior at a higher level.

Finally, let’s answer the question—how and why do characters come see the situation the frame they are in as fixed: as a game? Our ‘thumbnail sketch’ of this is as follows.

This, in brief, is the drama-theoretic model of how characters change and resolve (or fail to resolve) conflicts. In what follows I will explore it further and show how to use it in business and government as well as in relations between individuals.

Drama theory and ethics

there’s a link between drama theory and ethics.

Drama theory tells of an emotion-led process by which people build a common interest out of individual interests while appealing to general standards. This is morality in action.

This is how we have both a descriptive theory of how people do behave and an ethical theory of how, in some ways, they should behave. Our theory manages this double role, often thought to be philosophically difficult, by describing a ‘normal’ process in the medical or biological sense—ie, a process that ‘should’ take place but often suffers from ‘pathologies’ that block or distort it.

We claim that there’s a normal way for humans to solve differences just as there’s a normal way for an organ such as the human liver to function. We sense this normal way through a universal ethical intuition. Universal, inborn methods for solving differences give rise to a corresponding universal, inborn discrimination between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing so.

But if there’s an inborn method for solving differences, why do actual methods differ? Simply because the method comes out differently in different societies—just as languages do. Just as linguists try to dig out the universal traits of human language, so drama theorists seek what’s universal in methods of conflict resolution.

But why should there be universal methods? Presumably they were selected evolutionarily because pre-humans survived better if better able to plan joint action. But we don’t claim to know the details. We merely point out that a ‘functional’ explanation of difference resolution is quite consistent with an evolutionary origin, and consistent with there being a universal, ‘normal’ way to do it, deviating from which represents a ‘pathology’.

In sum, drama theory tries to model a universal ethical intuition, just as linguists try to model an innate, universal grammar.

Differing moralities

Because difference-resolving methods vary between societies, the universal intuition based on drama theory cannot determine all features of morality.

Humans have different, contradictory moralities just as they have different, mutually incomprehensible tongues. These may give rise to the worst conflict. People that find each others’ mores disgusting and horrifying make entrenched enemies. And drama theory can’t adjudicate between the contradictory commandments of different moralities—eg, whether to eat pork or beef.

However, because it looks at basic, universal ways to solve differences, it does find methods for resolving clashes between moralities as well as other kinds of conflict—methods based on universally felt intuitions as to how differences ‘should’ be resolved.

The existence of such universal intuitions isn’t disproved by the fact that ‘shoulds’ arising from them are sometimes outweighed by ‘shoulds’ arising from particular moralities. This only shows that simultaneously-held ‘shoulds’ may clash, forcing those that hold them to choose which to act by. For example, some Anglicans hold that gays shouldn’t be clergymen, and stick to that belief even though it makes conflict with other Anglicans worse. Others believe the opposite. Neither side is, in principle, in favor of conflict or against compromise. Nor do they deny that compromise could solve this conflict. It’s merely that the claims of their special morality outweigh, for them, the claims of conflict resolution.

The drama-theoretic ‘meta-ethic’ of how to solve differences judges process, not content, and is based on a universal intuition as to what kind of process is good.

Humour and irony

Drama theorists connect their model of how to solve differences with the function of ‘real’ drama—as practised in theaters or in fiction generally. Our claim: the function of drama is to show how differences are solved—or not. To show both how resolution may go wrong—its pathologies—and how it may go right.

People go to the theater or read novels to see this. It’s why they enjoy fiction.

We claim that when shown to an audience, the pathologies of dramatic resolution are seen as either humorous or ironic—in the sense of ‘dramatic irony’.

Dramatic irony is a rhetorical form that lets an audience see something significant that the characters themselves don’t see. Our claim: an audience sees dramatic irony in characters disastrously failing to see how they’re mishandling the solving of a conflict. Depending on how it’s shown, this can also be funny.

Now our claim that the normal process of dramatic development and resolution shows how we should solve differences, while pathologies show what can go wrong with this, implies a need to know, in a given case, whether what we’re seeing is normal or pathological. There is interest and utility in examining pathologies; but they need to be compared with what’s normal.

To distinguish normal from pathological, our claim implies that we can use a thought experiment: would an audience find this humorous or ironic? If so, it’s a pathology. If not, not. This test depends upon an audience having a nose for the right way to solve conflicts. And it does, due to the universal ethical intuition discussed above. Of course, individuals differ in how ethically sensitive they are, just as they differ in sensitivity to music. But this universal intuition will exist in any audience.

Note that ‘normal’ in this sense doesn’t mean ‘average’, or ‘what’s usually found’. Nor does ‘pathological’ mean ‘monstrous’. ‘Pathology’ simply means ‘imperfect or ineffective functioning’.

As such, pathologies are common. They’re what is usually found. It would be hard to find an organism whose functioning is quite normal. To guard against confusing ‘normal’ with ‘usual’ and ‘pathological’ with ‘weird’, we will often use the word ‘ideal’ in place of ‘normal’ and ‘non-ideal’ in place of ‘pathological’. In sum, non-ideal or pathological behavior is behavior that doesn’t solve conflicts in an ideal way. That’s why pointing it out is seen as humorous or ironic.

What kind of ethics?

As an ethical theory, drama theory is and is not relativistic.

It’s relativistic in admitting that collusion between ‘villains’—eg, thieves, monopolists or swindlers—can be well conducted. They can plan in a healthy, normal way, with positive feelings and cooperation. There may be a limit to how well they can do this. Limits may arise because the supercharacter they’re building through their relationship is meant to behave badly—non-ideally—in the bigger drama it’s meant to join; this can mar the rational arguments and appeals to standards that ‘villains’, like the rest of us, use. There’s no such limit for parties that honestly see their aims as good and are building a supercharacter that will, in their view, be good. We may disagree with their ethics in ways not to do with resolving differences. But nothing stops them from being ideally moral in how they interact.

Take the example of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. His racist ethics appall us. But there’s a different kind of wrongness in the fact that Ukrainians would have welcomed him, had he not immediately begun treating them worse than the Soviets. This is ironic because it shows something pathologically wrong with Hitler’s methods of solving differences.

By contrast, Shakespeare’s Othello ends—after much anguish and irony—in a harmonious resolution. The harmony could, no doubt, have been brought about in many ways, but is actually brought about by one character (Othello) committing suicide while another (Iago) goes away to be tortured to death. This ending is incompatible with our ethics. We are against suicide and torture. But we accept it because it is in harmony with the universal ethics of conflict resolution.

This shows that though drama theory does claim to be a universal ethics, it doesn’t try to be complete. It only looks at how to solve differences. Ethics is about this, but not only this. It looks at the content of a resolution, not just the process. Thus it looks at many more things than drama theory – things like approval of torture, that vary from one culture to another.

Drama theory, even in focusing on difference-solving, is not deterministic. It doesn’t determine uniquely how people should act to resolve conflicts. They must work this out for themselves. They are necessarily in the best position to do so, because the best way to resolve a conflict is only found by looking outside the drama-theoretic model and examining its real-world context with emotional motivation that can only come from being immersed in the problem.

Again, we don’t say there are no specific cultural aspects to difference-solving. Take, for example, positive emotion, which we claim has a universal function in solving differences. Positive emotion is universal. However, different cultures express it in different ways. For this reason also effective conflict resolution requires immersion in details of the problem that are absent from the drama-theoretic model.

It remains true that drama theory, by claiming to be universal, claims to offer difference-solving methods for use by cultures with different, irreconcilable ethics. People from different cultures may need each other’s help to meet their aims; when they do need each other in this way, the theory points to universal principles that show them how to work together. It also shows how as they do so their ethical systems can and should converge.

We also show the effects of an imbalance. When A’s need for B’s help is greater than B’s need for A’s, convergence tends to be on B’s terms. Drama theory doesn’t hide this; it shows it.

Other uses of the drama metaphor; free will and consciousness

drama, like game-playing, has been used as a metaphor for real life by poets, psychologists and sociologists. Our use of the metaphor differs from most of these.

The point they usually make is that real life, like drama, is made up of ‘actors’ playing roles; that they follow ‘scripts’ most of the time; even that they appear on a ‘stage’ with their appearances divided into ‘scenes’.

Our drama theory has no place for actors, roles, scripts or performances. ‘Scripts’, in the metaphorical sense of speech and actions learned beforehand and followed without question, explain much behavior But script-following behavior is precisely what drama theory doesn’t explain. It focuses instead on newly-invented behavior that breaks with previous patterns: the kind that’s dramatically interesting.

Both kinds of behavior matter. Routine behavior is essential. So too is novel, rule-breaking behavior. Routines are necessary for us to carry out many actions that require coordination. But routines constantly need adaptation. At times of crisis, altogether new routines are called for. Drama theory explains how the necessary creativity is evoked.

A recent TV series, ‛The Office’, illustrates the contrast between routines and creativity. Office work is largely a matter of following routines (scripts). Even social interactions between office workers are controlled in this way. Ironically, however, psychological theories of management demand that behavior be free, spontaneous and informal. Managers therefore demand free, spontaneous behavior The rule they prescribe is the self-contradictory one that rules be followed by not following rules, but behaving ‘freely’. The TV series used this irony to create comedic tension between the human nature of office workers—creative, anarchic and drama-theoretic—and the script-following demands of office work. A typical episode ended with the humor of an office worker faced with a dreadful example of script-following behavior masquerading as true, drama-theoretic behavior—and turning away, deciding not to unmask it, because it has to be accepted if you work in an office.

Just as it’s uninterested in scripts, drama theory is uninterested in the fact that drama is ‘performed’, not ‘genuine’. Instead of focusing on this, we treat drama as game theorists treat games. Like them, we abstract from—ignore—the fact that the paradigm activity (game-playing, drama) is an artificial, role-playing exercise, voluntarily undertaken and done for entertainment. We are concerned with the characters of a drama, taken as real; with their situations and choices, not with the fact that they are played by actors on a stage. The difference is essential. Whereas actors follow a script, characters have free will. If interested in someone as an actor, we’re interested in how they follow or interpret their script. If interested in them as a character, we want to see how they make choices in interaction with others and, in so doing, change in unforeseen ways and achieve self-realization

‘Free will’ exercised by a ‘conscious’, intentional being is thus an essential concept for us, just as it is for rational choice theorists. Like them, we lay down that any new piece of theory must meet a meta-theoretical requirement: knowledge of the theory by its subject must be compatible with the theory. Knowing the theory cannot cause it to be disobeyed. We call this the consciousness principle. A theory that doesn’t follow this rule isn’t a theory about conscious choosers, since if being conscious of a theory made subjects disobey it, it would have to be a theory about which subjects were unconscious. It wouldn’t be a theory of conscious behavior

Drama theory obeys this rule of theory-building. But I should point out what the rule doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that a conscious chooser’s behavior cannot be altered by knowing the theory—merely that such alterations must also be covered by the theory. Knowing the theory can lead a character to change its behavior—perhaps making it more appropriate or effective.

It follows that the theory must allow for more than one behavior It cannot be deterministic. Drama theory thus fails to give a unique answer to the question ‘how will a character behave?’ As a predictive theory, it’s worse than ‘non-deterministic’ in the usual sense of the term. Theories that give a unique probability distribution of predicted behavior are often called ‘non-deterministic’. Drama theory gives a set of possible solutions with no attached probabilities. It’s radically non-deterministic.

This radical non-uniqueness has to characterize the theory because, as said, it allows for both ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ behavior and ‘pathological’ (‘non-ideal’) behavior One effect of knowing the theory and applying it to one’s behavior can be to bring one’s behavior closer to the ideal—as when a character realizes that showing certain emotions will have a good effect, and so is liberated to express them. In other cases, the effect might be ironic. A character might decide to make its behavior less ideal—eg, to be deceitful, realizing that deceit can help it. In each case, the character itself decides what to do, having seen the range of behavior covered by the theory.

The assumption of consciousness

In effect, the consciousness principle recognizes the subject of a theory—the character—as being on the same epistemological level as the theorist—the builder of the theory.

Does that mean we assume that all real-life and fictional characters know our theory and consciously apply it? That would be absurd. We do assume, first, that had they known it and drawn all necessary conclusions, they wouldn’t have chosen to disobey it. To support this, we assume that those not conscious of it had a degree of unconscious awareness, enough to enable them to obey it.

Such unconscious awareness isn’t mysterious. It’s a way of saying that behavior follows the theory. When riding a bicycle, we’re unconscious of the compensating movements that keep it upright, even though we direct and control them. We’re unconscious of drama theory in the same way. And just as we can fall off a bicycle, even though staying on it explains the movements that we make, so we can do the wrong thing (by reacting pathologically, or just making a mistake) when solving differences.

The author and the audience

Because it treats dramas as if they were real, terms such as ‘actor’, ‘role’, ‘script’ and ‘performance’ don’t appear in drama theory. However, ‘author’ and ‘audience’ do.

Many real-life dramas are created by a superior authority. This we call the author. For example, a firm starting a new venture first hires people to fill posts, then sets production or profit targets. In doing so, it creates a drama between the people. Similarly, a general sets missions for subordinate commanders.

Subordinates may be inspired by paradoxes of rationality to break out of the drama they’ve been put in and appeal to the higher authority that put them there. Here the analogy with the author of a play breaks down—though Pirandello (1921) in Six Characters in Search of an Author allowed such goings-on. Mostly, however, characters take the decisions of their author for granted, as fixed parts of the frame they inhabit.

The ‘author’ can be the characters themselves at a prior time, when they made irrevocable decisions placing them in their present spot. Or it may include non-sentient environmental forces, like a storm that isolates a group of people. It’s whatever set up the scene the characters are in.

The ‘audience’ can be outside observers. It can be the characters themselves, observing themselves. The audience of a drama—characters or outside observers—learns from it, feels for its progress and gets satisfaction from its resolution, though the satisfaction they get is of a peculiar kind. It isn’t got from seeing characters succeed; tragic endings satisfy as well as happy ones. What matters is whether true dramatic resolution obtains.

Milton, in Samson Agonistes, describes the effect of a profound dramatic resolution on an audience:

His servants he, with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.

When a drama is fully resolved the characters have one set of intentions for the future. There is no more information to be shared between them or with the audience. They’ve nothing left to hope for or to fear—all previously existing opportunities having been either destroyed (a tragic ending) or exploited (a happy one).

Actually, this describes the resolution of a drama like Samson Agonistes that deals with things of life-shattering importance. Many dramas are less apocalyptic; what’s at stake is less significant. A more precise statement, therefore, is that at a resolution, characters have one set of intentions, have shared all information and have nothing left to hope for or to fear regarding what’s at stake.

Again, we’ve described an ideal resolution. Real-life endings often depart from the ideal—ie, are ‘pathological’. In fiction, authors often play with pathologies to point morals or arouse perverse, ‘non-normal’ interest.

This ‘perversity’, in the sense of a liking for what is non-ideal, doesn’t deny, it confirms, the existence of an ideal. And note that the ideal resolution, in which characters, starting with different plans and conflicting wants, come to one will regarding what’s at stake, is practically important. It matters for business and politics as well as personal relations. A business firm wants to resolve its problems as ideally as it can in this sense.

The ideal resolution that we strive for has, however, two disconcerting characteristics. First, it can’t go into much detail. As we pin down more and more details, we eventually find points on which characters disagree. Secondly, it doesn’t last. Human nature demands, and the impossibility of predicting the future implies, that as we go further into implementing an agreement we will get into new conflicts and misunderstandings.

Drama theory in relation to other subjects

we’ve outlined a specific approach to drama and conflict resolution. It is, broadly,

In changing the plans they push or the wills they state, parties change both their objectives—the projects that embody their values—and their contingent objectives—what they intend to do if their objectives aren’t met. Depending on how much the issues matter to them, this means changing themselves, to a greater or lesser extent. Changes in their beliefs and preferences also mean changes in themselves, since beliefs and preferences are founded on knowledge of facts and effective value systems.

To change such things (when the issues matter) is to go deep into one’s own self-definition. It is self-transcendence. Such self-transcendence, triggered not by new information but by the situation’s internal dynamic, is the essence of drama, which lays before us a closed system containing the factors responsible for change and shows how change happens. The derivation of such developmental changes from paradoxes of rationality, encountered by players making conscious decisions, makes drama theory a theory of conscious choice—one that its subjects, the characters, can become conscious of without it being invalidated.

What can one do with such a theory? Drama theorists can model, analyses and explain dramas. They can, like film directors, show characters how to behave. The difference is that whereas a film director talks to actors, a drama theorist talks to characters.

Drama theory can help businessmen, politicians, military commanders or individuals to handle relationships. It can help by showing the way to self-realization and satisfactory resolution of conflicts for individuals and organizations

Different theoretical approaches define “success” differently, depending on the aims they set themselves. Behavioral psychologists succeed when they explain choice as caused by prior events. Rational choice theorists succeed when they explain choice as instrumentally rational. Game theorists, as mathematicians, succeed when they prove general properties of instrumentally rational solutions. And drama theorists? We succeed when we explain interactions as processes of dramatic resolution and self-realization and show how characters find solutions that satisfy them.

Both drama theory and game theory assume conscious choice. They explain choice in terms of the futures subjects see before them, rather than past events. Thus they look to the future for ‘causes’, rather than the past. This is an important departure from the physical-science paradigm, which explains the future by the past.

These two theories of conscious choice—drama theory and game theory—complement each other. They are mutually dependent. Drama theory explains how and why players, through pre-game communication, can build up the beliefs and aims that game theory takes as given: game theory has a part in explaining how drama-theoretic characters foresee the consequences of adopting such-and-such beliefs and aims.

Drama theory has obvious links to applied subjects. Economics needs a theory that, without abandoning rationality or losing mathematical rigor and generality, covers emotion, irrationality and preference change. Psychologists should be interested in how emotion and development arise from cognitive interactions between people. Political science can use a theory of how and why characters communicate – characters that may be nations or organizations as well as individuals. Being ethical as well as descriptive, drama theory can help construct an effective new world order capable of adapting to climate change.

Rationalism v. irrationalism

Is drama theory ‘irrationalist’, or part of the rational tradition of Western thought?

Drama theorists show that instrumental rationality suffers from paradoxes. The fact is that the simple concept of rational choice—expressed as choose A rather than B if A is both preferred and available—cannot bear the weight put upon it in human interactions. It breaks down. [Although attempts to rescue it have been made using the idea of ’revealed preference’ -- see note at the end of this section.]

We make a point of this breakdown (following my 1971 book, Paradoxes of Rationality). We don’t, however, leave it at that. We hypothesise a natural, emotion-driven process of dramatic resolution whereby rationality, having broken down, is rebuilt on a new basis, the energy for this being supplied from the same source as the breakdown—the paradoxes themselves. Paradoxes of rationality go on generating emotion and rationalisations that justify redefining the game until the drama is rationally resolved.

A drama begins with the separate, unreconciled rationalities of the individual characters. It ends with these reconstituted and reconciled.

Rational-choice theorists, by contrast, take the preferences and opportunities that define a decision-maker’s problem as given—ie, as fixed (or, if they change, as changing only parametrically, due to exogenous causes). This is instrumental rationality. It’s felt to be necessary because it enables the use of mathematical methods of optimization. Once stated, however, it seems obvious that it is too narrow. And it has unfortunate results for the concept of rationality. It defines ’rationality’ so narrowly as to exclude two important areas where it was traditionally thought to be essential: education in ethics (more broadly, the formation of new preferences) and scientific discovery (more broadly, the perception of new opportunities).

To exclude these areas from rational scrutiny seems like throwing the baby out with the bath-water. Yet it’s clear from first principles that instrumental rationality can’t show how we form new preferences or perceive new opportunities because it assumes given preferences and opportunities. Once these are given, it performs a technical calculation to select a most-preferred opportunity. Until they’re given, it can’t start.

But the desire to use extremal mathematics (the mathematics of optimization) isn’t the sole reason for excluding both ethics and scientific discovery from rational auditing. I think there are reasons based in the nature of our society.

First, the view that reason has no role in forming preferences (and therefore no role in ethics) seems natural to us because it corresponds to a basic distinction between our economic roles as consumers and as producers. As consumers, we aren’t required to think rationally in deciding what we want, We can be as whimsical or perverse as we like. Whatever we want, rational or irrational, producers are expected to supply. As producers, on the other hand, we’re expected to think rationally at all times, so that by maximizing our incomes we will, through the market, optimally satisfy the (arbitrary, irrational) desires of consumers.

This economic paradigm is assumed in all our lives. It makes us willing to see preferences as not subject to rational choice—and hence, ethics as non-rational.

Second, the idea that rationality has no role in deciding what opportunities are open to the decision-maker (and hence, in particular, no role in the creative side of scientific discovery) follows from a widespread, wrong idea about the role of observation in science and decision-making. This is that something called ‘objective, disinterested observation’ can give us an adequate, correct view of the world prior to our deciding what we want to do with it. Much criticism of the use of intelligence prior to the Iraq war made this foolish assumption. It corresponds to a naïve view of scientific discovery as a two-stage process: first, observe the facts; then, build a theory.

That such a process is impossible has been pointed out by philosophers of science from Karl Popper (Conjectures and Refutations) to Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). We must already have a ‘theory’—ie, a mechanism for filtering out irrelevant observations—in order to define and select the facts we observe. The only observations science can use are made by someone trying to prove or disprove a theory. ‘Disinterested’ observation is useless. But the deeply-engrained idea that it’s not—that somehow we can disinterestedly survey the facts prior to making a theoretical or practical decision—is the basis for the idea that a decision-maker’s beliefs about its opportunities are given to it, rather than created by it in interaction with the environment and its aims.

Of course, the fact that we must have reasons for wanting to believe something before making observations to confirm or deny it doesn’t excuse us from criticizing, by all available means, the intelligence we wish to be true. On the contrary, this very fact makes criticism essential; and this is how intelligence on Iraq was misused—it was not viewed and demolished critically.

But if preferences and opportunities—what we want and can do—are not taken as given, they must, apparently, be selected. And how can the way we select them be rational unless it’s a matter of choosing the best from a given set—which means taking these other, more basic preferences and opportunities as given? In other words, which comes first, the chicken of opportunity-observation and preference-formation—deciding what we want and can do—or the egg of rational choice?

Drama theory answers this by proposing that the problems (‘dilemmas’) that arise from trying to choose rationally within given ideas of what we want and can do, motivate us to look for evidence to justify changing those ideas. This motivation can’t be called ‘rational’ in the instrumental sense. But it’s a necessary part of rationality because it drives us to try to change our own and others’ beliefs and preferences by producing arguments and evidence. And because such attempts to make changes are contested, we’re driven to try to make our arguments valid and our evidence sufficient. Thus it motivates two pillars of rationality: the use of reason and evidence.

By contrast, producing arguments and evidence, let alone trying to make them valid and sufficient, has no role—is totally redundant—in rational choice theory. It is central to drama theory. And we assert that it deserves the term ’rational’ more than does the idea of rationality proper than the idea of optimization within a fixed framework of preferences and beliefs -- ie, more than the idea of instrumental rationality.

Unfortunately for its acceptability, the drama-theoretic approach challenges many systems of ideas. The false view that perception of opportunities is outside the scope of rational choice has influenced both philosophical theories about scientific discovery and economic theories about technological advance—two important activities through which, as societies, we try to enlarge our set of opportunities. In the philosophy of science and in economics, advances have been seen as ‘sent from above’—ie, as inherently incapable of rational explanation. Comparing a proposed advance with its competitors and deciding which should be preferred can, it has been said, be represented as rational activities. Finding the advance in the first place cannot. This view, though criticized in ‘endogenous growth theory’ and in some philosophies of scientific method, nevertheless persists.

Drama theory contends that the instrumental, rational-choice view of rationality is too narrow. It should be expanded by incorporating a theory of emotion as the factor that impels and liberates decision-makers to reconsider their ‘fixed’ values and beliefs in order to eliminate the paradoxes that confront them. The ‘rational arguments in the common interest’ that they use to build and defend new values and beliefs show rationality operating on a higher level, and at the same time show how individuals can and should reconcile their individual rationalities with the rationality of the group. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, showed this, in one way, on the macro scale. Drama theory shows it, in a more advanced way, on the micro scale.

To return to the question—is drama theory rationalist or irrationalist?—the answer is that drama theory is rationalist, provided we use a wider definition of rationality than the rational-choice paradigm.

Note on ’revealed preferences’. In experiments, significant numbers of subjects faced with a paradox do not choose A over B even though, when choosing in a non-paradoxical setting, they prefer A. The ’revealed preference’ approach defines this problem away by defining ’X is preferred to Y’ to mean ’X is chosen over Y’. The result is that players are instrumentally rational by definition: experiments are pointless, there is nothing to test. Definitions don’t, however, alter facts. They only alter the language used to describe them. The language of revealed preference makes us describe the facts by saying that preferences tend to change when parties face paradoxes of rationality -- which is a statement that drama theory agrees with & sets out to explain. Drama theory does, however, point to a time period in which paradox-provoked, preference-changing emotions are being felt but have not yet been rationalized. During this period, emotion may cause B to be chosen over A even though the permanent factors that underlie preferences (values, interests, etc) still favor A.

So what we say about widening the concept of rationality beyond instrumental rationality could be translated into the language of revealed preference -- though it might make it harder to follow.