Willemien Kets appointed professor of Game Theory

Professorship aims to develop more realistic modelling of human actions

Utrecht University appoints Willemien Kets as Professor of Game Theory per 1 March 2022. Professor Kets will work to further strengthen game theory by combining new elements from mathematics and the social sciences. This could allow game theory to provide more realistic models of how people behave.

Prof. dr. Willemien Kets
Prof. Willemien Kets

Every time we pass someone on the street, we must assess what decision the other person will make. Are we going to pass each other left, or right? Will the other person step aside at all? And if not, what should I do? By trying to anticipate on what the other person will do, we avoid collisions and get the best out of the situation. This applies not only to traffic, but to all situations where the outcome depends on what the other people do. This covers a wide variety of settings, from collaborating within an organisation to major economic movements on a global scale.

By modelling interpersonal dynamics in mathematical terms, researchers study what decisions people make and what factors affect their actions. The research failed aimed at addressing these questions is called game theory.

Many important questions

Game theory is a fairly young research area that became a separate scientific discipline in the 1950s. Many relevant questions that emerge from game theory have remained unanswered, according to Kets, in part because the field relies too much on the idea that people act rationally. In order to make more realistic predictions, fundamental improvements are needed within game theory.

Social and cultural influences

Kets investigates how game theory can yield more realistic descriptions of human behaviour by extending models with ideas from psychology. She focuses in particular on the role of social and cultural influences.

Culture affects our actions to a much larger extend than game theory currently suggests.

Culture affects our actions to a much larger extend than game theory currently suggests, according to Kets. "If, for example, we are surrounded by people with the same cultural background, we can coordinate our actions more easily. That may sound like a good thing. But we also see that people in these situations may be less likely to adapt their behaviour, even if that would allow them to attain better outcomes."

Mathematical building blocks

The existing building blocks of game theory are not sufficient to include these dimensions, according to Kets. As a professor, Kets aims to develop new tools that allow cultural and social aspects to be included in game theory. "Ultimately, this could lead to new insights into how to design organisations, for example," said Kets. "But it also allows you the investigate more precisely why some institutions work and others don't."

Improved game theory could lead to new insights into how to design organisations

To achieve this, Kets works outside the beaten track of game theory, collaborating closely with researchers in mathematics, social sciences and economics.

Coupling mathematics and economics

As an Utrecht University professor, Kets aims to strengthen the connection between economics and mathematics. "Many societal challenges have an economic component, but are difficult to address using existing economic models," said Kets. "Examples of such include the energy transition, income inequality, and labour market dynamics. To make progress in these important questions, we need new mathematics."

Many societal challenges have an economic component. To make progress in studying these important questions, we need new mathematics.

Together with researchers from Utrecht University’s Computational Finance group, she is therefore setting up a new double bachelor. Kets: "Students will then have both the mathematical and economic background to develop economic models to address today's challenges."

Interdisciplinary career

Kets' academic career is highly interdisciplinary. She studied chemistry at Radboud University in Nijmegen and obtained a doctorate in economics at Tilburg University. She continued her career at the University of Oxford and Northwestern University, among others. She is also affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, which focuses on research into complex systems.