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Game theorist Scott Tyson puzzles over what makes autocrats successful

October 29, 2018
Scott Tyson, a new assistant professor of political science, applies game theory to the study of authoritarian politicsScott Tyson, a new assistant professor of political science, applies game theory to the study of authoritarian politics. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

“I have always been driven by a desire to solve problems. I like to think through puzzles, even those of my own making,” says Scott Tyson, a game theorist. “That’s probably typical for many academics.”

He also likes to be precise.

A new assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, Tyson was recruited from the University of Michigan, where he had been an assistant professor for two years.

What gets him going are the underlying concepts—the question of “what are we really talking about?” What’s the fundamental idea?

Tyson, whose family is originally from New Jersey, spent a great deal of his adolescence and young adulthood in Texas where he obtained his undergraduate degrees in pure mathematics and economics, and subsequently a MSc in economics from the University of Texas at Austin.

It wasn’t until after his master’s degree that he found his niche in political science, nudged by his advisor, an economics professor at Austin. Tyson, who has long enjoyed reading political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, suddenly saw a way of marrying his research interests in game theory with his intellectual curiosity for political philosophy.

“I liked the methodological rigor of economics, and math is something I have always enjoyed—it’s very natural to me. This was a way to unite my two passions,” says Tyson.

These days, his research focuses on formal political theory, political economy, conflict, authoritarian politics, and collective action. The main thrust of his inquiry looks at the relationship between various coordination problems that share some common element, and the role of factions in collective action.

Specifically, Tyson is interested in the theoretical implications of empirical models and how the two connect: “What happens if this one thing and only this one thing were different? Would the conflict have happened the same way? How would it be different? Those are the questions we are always trying to ask,” Tyson explains. “As scholars we are interested in causal questions. And the only way to assess that is to ask, ‘what happens if this lever and this lever alone changed?’”

Of course, in the real world changing just one variable is hard to do. That’s why theorist Tyson cautions against forcing real-live examples to fit a specific theory.

“If we looked for a concrete example we’re going to miss so many things, because there’s something extraordinarily special about that specific example. But maybe the more interesting theories are the ones that explain the more complicated cases,” he says.

Political science professor Randall Stone, who chaired the departmental search committee, and whose own research in international political economy combines formal theory with quantitative methods and qualitative fieldwork, says the decision to hire Tyson “was a remarkably good fit, both for him and for us. Scott does very sophisticated game-theoretic research to model issues in international security, civil conflict and terrorism.”

Stone says he’ll complement the political science department’s traditional strength in mathematical modeling, and also bring a new set of technical tools. “I expect him to play an important role in training graduate students and to help consolidate what has become a very strong set of junior faculty members in the department,” says Stone.

Most recently, Tyson has been studying political accountability in nondemocratic environments where government officials are sanctioned by nonelectoral institutions. Research on authoritarian politics has become more prevalent, he says, because of democratic backsliding worldwide.

“The world that we live in is becoming less and less democratic every year,” he says, pointing to examples in central and Eastern Europe—Poland and Hungary. The most democratic the world has ever been, he notes, was right after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Tyson seeks to get at the core of what makes an autocrat and whom he or she is accountable to—which fractions or groups within a state. In other words, what makes the repression work, and why do certain groups oppress others at the behest of the autocrat?

Right now, he’s working on a theory to explain the causal part. As Tyson sees it, it’s two-fold.

First, the autocrat feels threatened by a certain group. Second, there’s a relationship between the ruler and the agency that suppresses the threat. The central question is how the ruler compensates the group that carries out the oppression at his directive: is it a reorganization of the way government runs, more direct say in policy matters, or a monetary incentive?

According to Tyson, researchers don’t know yet what exactly causes oppression. The only robust finding to date is that military regimes tend to oppress more than others. But the causal path—a bit like the chicken and the egg question—is not clear: does having a powerful military within a government cause the government to oppress, or is the military apparatus so powerful because the autocrat had to rely on it in order to oppress his or her own opposition?

Tyson, who earned his PhD in politics in 2015 at New York University, was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies before joining the University of Michigan’s political science department.

A self-professed foodie, he and his wife Clare—whose framed wedding photograph is the only decoration in his sparsely-decorated Rochester office so far—like to go out and try new restaurants and cocktails. Their current favorite? Hands down—Vesper Martini, a high proof cocktail invented by James Bond author Ian Fleming in 1953 and sipped onscreen by cool Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale who provides precise instructions for the drink’s preparation.

Tyson, of course, has the exact recipe down pat. Shaken, not stirred. Everyone knows Bond’s famous movie tagline.

Not so fast, says Tyson. “That’s a common misperception.” Fleming actually wrote the exact opposite (but the reversal sounded better to the screen writers).

Stirred not shaken, Tyson insists.

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