Reinhard Selten, Game Theorist Who Won Nobel Prize, Dies at 85

  • Selten shared 1994 Nobel prize with Nash and Harsanyi
  • Economist said emergence of mass movements can weaken theory

Reinhard Selten, the German economist and mathematician who won the 1994 Nobel Prize for his work on game theory, has died. He was 85.

Selten died on Aug. 23 in the Polish city of Poznan, according to a statement Thursday by the University of Bonn, where he was until recently still active in research.

Reinhard Selten
Reinhard Selten
Soruce: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Germany’s only Nobel laureate in the field of economic sciences, Selten shared the prize with John F. Nash Jr. of Princeton University and John C. Harsanyi of the University of California, Berkeley, both of whom developed concepts to explain human behavior through game theory.

Applied to fields as diverse as international relations, business-negotiation standoffs and biology, game theory attempts to predict human action based on the conflicting strategies of different parties. The academic study focuses largely on experimental methodology that requires participants to respond to various sets of circumstances in real-world situations, such as wars and political stalemates.

“Predicting human actions is also a goal of game theory, but it is more the question of, what would rational players do in a game?” Selten said in a 2004 interview with journalist Marika Griehsel.

No Gain

Selten’s work involved refining Nash’s equilibrium concept by removing unlikely scenarios in which two or more players have nothing to gain by changing their strategies unilaterally. He applied his theory of bounded rationality -- whereby individuals make decisions based on limited information -- to the war in Kosovo and to superpower rivalry in the Persian Gulf during the 1970s. He said the emergence of mass movements can weaken the theory’s accuracy, as shown by Ayatollah Khomeini’s unexpected rise to power in Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Reinhard Selten was born on Oct. 5, 1930, in Breslau, a German city before World War II and now called Wroclaw in present-day Poland. His father ran a magazine-lending business, which the Nazi regime forced him to sell because he was Jewish.

Selten and his mother were Protestant, yet his father’s Jewish roots forced Selten to leave school at 14 and he was refused entry to a trade. They left Breslau and became refugees in the German states of Saxony and Hesse as well as in Austria, where he worked as a farm hand after the war. His life in a village in Hesse required walking 3 ½ hours to and from school, during which he solved mathematical problems, he said in his biography for the Nobel Foundation.

‘Strong Influence’

“My situation as a member of an officially despised minority forced me to pay close attention to political matters very early in my life,” he said. “I had to learn to trust my own judgment rather than official propaganda or public opinion. This was a strong influence on my intellectual development.”

Selten earned a master’s degree in mathematics at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt in 1957 and a doctorate four years later. After posts at the University of California and the Free University in Berlin, he was a professor of mathematical economics at the University of Bielefeld for 12 years. He moved to the University of Bonn in 1984 where he remained for about 30 years.

Selten and his wife, the former Elisabeth Langreiner, were proficient in Esperanto, an invented language devised in the 19th century to assist international communication. Both were diagnosed with diabetes in 1991, and his wife later lost both legs up to the knee from the disease. They had no children.

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