Why The Joker and Not Batman is the Savior of Us All

Posted on by Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell (Brash Equilibrium)
URL for sharing: http://thisorth.at/24yt
What if I told you that Batman is not the true hero in the Dark Knight saga? What if I told you instead that if The Joker did not exist, Gotham would be overrun by organized crime families and the corrupt politicians that live in their pockets? And what if I told you that there is mathematical proof of this argument's validity? Curious? Read on.

In a recent article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, two mathematicians and a physicist use a mathematical model show how the "destructive agents" (which they aptly call "Jokers") can help people avoid the tragedy of the commons. What's the tragedy of the the commons? It's when people try to make the world a better place, but doing so is costly. Free-riders can enjoy the benefits of a better world without paying the costs of helping to create it. So free-riders out-compete everyone else, and all are the worse for it.

With the hyperbole and snark characteristic of This or That feature writing (and Internet media, more broadly), I'll use this fancy mathematical model to assert that The Joker isn't a villain. He's just misunderstood. He's only trying to help us solve a collective action problem, guys!

See, guys, you're about to make him cry! Stop it...

So before I explain the whole Joker thing, I need to give you a primer on evolutionary game theory. Don't worry, I've got some intellectual credibility on this front. And don't worry, you don't have to do any math.

If you haven't figured it out already, my ToT handle, "Brash Equilibrium," is a play on "Nash equilibrium," discovered by famous mathematician and game theorist John Nash. By the way, Nash was not as physically attractive or entirely heterosexual as Russell Crowe's portrayal in A Beautiful Mind.

Real John Nash versus fake John Nash
Look at left. Steve Buscemi would have been a better casting choice, n'yet?

Nash was, however, almost as crazy. In addition, his wife was about as hot as Jennifer Connelly. Check it out. (His wife was not, however, as hot as my wife.)

The Nash equilibrium concept is part of game theory. Essentially, game theory thinks about social interactions as a game where people can choose from a bunch of different strategies. A Nash equilibrium happens when each player in the game of life chooses a strategy that is the best response to everyone else's strategy. An example is the game Rock, Paper, Scissors, where the best strategy is to randomly choose to play rock, paper, or scissors. If you deviate from the best strategy, you don't do as well in the game. And people always want to win the game, right?

And that's the problem with classical game theory. It assumes people are rational. That people are smart. Look around you. Remember your dorm roommate who purposefully lit his own balls on fire so he could film a video of you and the rest of the guys stomping it out?

Yeah, people aren't that smart. That's where evolutionary game theory comes in. Evolutionary game theory doesn't need to assume people are rational or smart (although it can if you want it to). It assumes, instead, that people who do better reproduce more rapidly or die with less probability than people who do worse (that's why it is "evolutionary" game theory; it involves the $#%&ing and dying that Darwinian fitness entails). If you ignorantly believe evolution isn't a fact (which it is), you can instead think of evolutionary game theory as describing the "fitness" of an idea rather than a biological trait. Say, better ideas are more likely to be imitated. Then again...

Okay, with that primer out of the way, I'm going to describe how that group of Spanish mathematicians and physicists proved in principle that The Joker, not Batman, could be the savior of us all. I'm going to cook down their sophisticated model to its bare essentials.

Imagine a world where people play a game that we'll call a "public goods game." People contribute effort to creating a public good that can be shared by all members of a group. For example, people can use fewer resources to help ensure the sustainability of the environment for everyone. There are three "strategies" that people can play:

  1. Cooperators generate a benefit, shared by all, but they pay a cost to do so. The cost could be increased effort or reduced consumption or waiting for hours to cook a hot dog using only the heat of the sun.
  2. Defectors say "Ef that." They sit back and enjoy the group benefit without paying the costs (e.g., the financial industry; most of the people you work with, and probably you, too). For you DC Universe nerds, you can think of Defectors as the organized crime of Gotham, and the city officials they've bought. Lex Luthor is another example.
  3. Jokers are crazy, sadistic bastards who care nothing about the group benefit (so they don't consume it), but they do care about destroying things. They usually do so while cackling and making bad puns. They closely resemble Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, or Heath Ledger (depending on the decade), or sound like post-Star Wars Mark Hamill (the best Joker of all time).

Lloyd Blankfein: An example of a Defector.

The authors analyzed the equilibrium outcome of this evolutionary game. That is, when will the proportion of Cooperators, Defectors and Jokers become stable over time? Will Cooperators reign (ha)? Will Defectors beat out Cooperators (likely)? And what happens when you introduce Jokers into the mix (other than lots of structure fires)?

Here's what they found out. There are three possible outcomes:

  1. Without Jokers, Defectors do better than Cooperators...which makes everyone on average worse off (and which is why you should really reconsider your political stance if you are a staunch fiscal conservative).
  2. If you include Jokers in the mix, here's the first thing that can happen. Suppose being a lone Cooperator in a population of maniacal Jokers is a good thing because you produce a sizable benefit for yourself, and the Jokers aren't that good at destroying it. Here's what happens. First, say Cooperators are most common. Then, Defectors take over because they enjoy the benefits of the public good without paying the costs. Once Defectors take over, Jokers beat out Defectors because they brazenly destroy whatever benefit is generated by the small numbers of remaining Cooperators.. Finally, Cooperators take over again because they do better than Jokers (who don't enjoy the public good). The cycle repeats indefinitely. It's not the best case scenario (that is, everyone cooperates), but it's better than Scenario 1 above.
  3. Suppose instead that Jokers are really good at destroying stuff so that being a lone Cooperator in a population of Jokers doesn't pay. In this case, Jokers take over, beating out both Cooperators and Defectors, ensuring perpetual chaos and mayhem. Fun!
Emperor Joker
This is what the world turns into if scenario 3 happens.

Think about it, though. Scenario 2 is more likely than Scenario 3. If it weren't, I bet we would, at this moment, be living in complete chaos and anarchy. Such is not the case even in Somalia, which doesn't have a functioning government. Hell, even pirates are organized.

If Scenario 2 holds (and I think it will), then we must reconsider The Joker and his minions in a positive light. If we allowed them to persist, the Lloyd Blankfeins wouldn't do as well, at least not for long. DC Universe nerds: now it makes so much more sense why Lex Luthor (when he was the President of the United States) was so hellbent on killing The Joker!

More to the point, The Joker solution to the problem of Defectors is more stable than the Batman solution. Here's why. Batman punishes Defectors. But he does so at great cost to his sanity, physical well-being, and love life. If Batman were real, Wayne Enterprises would have crumbled long ago, or been bought out by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway (leaving Bruce Wayne without a corporate coffer to fund his vigilantism). For that matter, if Batman were real, then Bruce Wayne would probably have gotten iced on his first night wearing the cape and cowl.

This is a basic result in evolutionary game theory. Punishment is often costly, which produces yet another collective action problem. Punishers are worse off than people who let others punish. In other words, who watches the watchmen? That's the problem Alan Moore explored in...well...The Watchmen. And for those of you who've read that genius of a comic series, the Joker effect I just described reaffirms the decisions of Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan.

Ozymandias is The Joker.
Ozymandias = The Joker

Batman also punishes Jokers, which neutralizes the beneficial "Joker effect" that our Spaniard geniuses devised.

Unlike Batman, you don't have to monitor the Jokers like you have to watch the watchmen. You don't even have to pay them. You just have to let them cause a ruckus once in a while. Then we'll circle our wagons and live in solidarity for a time.

But as the cyclic pattern of Scenario 2 illustrates, and as the final earthly words of Dr. Manhattan encapsulate:

"Nothing ever ends."

Oh, Dr. Manhattan. You were so much more than a big, blue wang.

So who do you think will save us all?

393157 views & 67 votes

Debate It! 33

an excellent, albeit lengthy argument, Brash!

Posted By karlakelly,

Hey, there is a market for nerdy long reads. Seattlites can read it while they go through the bus tunnel. >:-D

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

I have always felt that it is the fact that in our society Cooperators, Defectors, and Jokers have historically been able to co-exist and express their foibles and that this could be what has allowed us to (at least periodically) reach the Golden Mean of being able to exist within a free society with at least a modicum of security to live as we individually see fit. If I understand this correctly, in my humble opinion I think that perhaps we are currently in a situation where the extreme end of Defectors have too much power and control over Cooperators and perhaps even Jokers.

A very thought provoking, entertaining, and well-written piece. Thank you.

Posted By The Other Thing,

I think you're right, Ma. We might be moving into the Defectors portion of the cycle.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Stopped reading when the author said " If you ignorantly believe evolution isn't a fact (which it is)". Clearly the ignorant one is someone who thinks an unproven theory is a fact and then obliviously masquerades about it on the internet. While I respect your opinion, do not try to tell me mine is wrong, sir.

Posted By Trollololol,

I think the vehicle of stability (salvation?) isn't either/or, but both/and. Limiting Batman to a sole 'cooperator' is to remove the psychological effect on the system of a superhero/savior/punisher, who absolutely needs to be locked in conflict with a supervillain, by all mythological accounts since the beginning of human history. It is this superconflict which will more likely push on-the-fence defectors to 'do the right thing,' at least once in a while, wanting to psychologically identify with The Batman instead of clown-boy.

Posted By robimagine,

@Trollololol: First, I commend you on an awesome ToT handle.

As I understand, you have two gripes. Your first gripe regards my tone. I mean, who wants to be called ignorant? For that, I do apologize. I do, however, think you should expect brash snark from (a) a guy whose ToT handle includes the word "Brash," and (b) a website that brings you the latest news "as amusingly and [here's the important part] snarkily as possible." Recognize, also, that I am not calling your whole person ignorant. I am calling your belief that evolution isn't a fact ignorant. I'm sure I am ignorant about many things, as well, and I try not to take it personally.

That said, I'm not ignorant when it comes to the theory of evolution. And here comes your second gripe: that evolution is an "unproven theory." I see this gripe and raise you two of my own.

First, a scientific theory is, by definition, a set of logically valid hypotheses that have been repeatedly and rigorously tested, and which are consistent with perceived facts. Indeed, evolution is a theory. Considering what a theory is, I would not trod on it so heavily to say it is "unproven." As far as science can prove things, evolution is a proven fact. It happens in short time spans and long, leading to phenomena ranging from neutral evolution of non-coding genes to full-blown speciation. What you're really saying is that evolution is an unproven -hypothesis-. There, you are dead wrong. The evidence is so massively favored toward evolution, and so many better scholars than I have explained why, that I will not repeat it all here.

Second, you say, "While I respect your opinion, do not try to tell me mine is wrong, sir." Here is where we part ways entirely. I respect a lot of people, and I respect a diversity of opinions. Respecting someone or something does not grant that person or thing immunity from my criticism. I can respect someone's right to an opinion, but have little respect for the argument supporting that person's position. And that is how I feel about Creationism and Intelligent Design (which lie along the same rhetorical continuum; I say rhetorical, because neither Creationism nor Intelligent Design are scientific theories, and I would not even go so far as to call them hypotheses).

Also, when you address me as "sir," it must be capitalized and followed by "Brash," as in, "Sir Brash." I forgive you this time.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

@robimagine: What an interesting thesis! I think you have something there. But I want to make sure we aren't talking past one another. What you're talking about is the idea that a successful hero can embolden others to do what is right and resist what is wrong because the chances of success seem greater. I agree. That's another rendition of what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "tipping point."

What I'm talking about is a specific sort of game, in which people can either contribute, not contribute, or endeavor to destroy a public good. And in this scenario, we would not expect people like Batman to emerge given the high personal cost (to Batman) of the punishment he doles out. If we could stabilize punishment of Defectors by brave and just individuals, I agree that it may embolden the public, as I think you say.

Good show!

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

"Without Jokers, Defectors do better than Cooperators...which makes everyone on average worse off (and which is why you should really reconsider your political stance if you are a staunch fiscal conservative)."

Great article up until that point. Considering the tragedy of the commons is most often used to describe situations where government action creates a public good or service which people then take advantage of because they pay the same amount regardless of their level of use, a staunchly fiscally conservative government is a much better way to avoid the tragedy of the commons in most areas (the environment being about the only counter-example) than not. When something is privately owned and has to be bought, you have to be a contributor to benefit; the cooperators enjoy the spoils, the defectors either become cooperators or become thieves in a more literal sense.

Posted By AnonT,

@AnonT: Point taken...kind of. What you are saying is that when you have to invest in something in order to get a benefit out of it, you are more likely to invest in it. But most privately owned benefits are...uh...private.

Thus...they don't often create a public good, y'know?

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Let me rephrase: They don't often create a public good that does not also confer private benefits to the investor above and beyond what they would get from free-loading.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

I feel that Ozymandias is a bad example of a joker because he did care about the group benefit. He is far different from a joker like The Joker. But if Ozymandias isn't a joker, then what is he?

Posted By Steve DcQueen,

@Steve, that is a very good critique. And a very good question

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

This might be totally wrong, but aren't we in some sense jokers for other species? e.g. an adult trying to get rid of an ant infestation or a little kid killing them for fun or stepping on them accidentally. Both of them are acting to destroy senselessly, from the ants point of view. Or maybe you could look in the other direction. Lions eating tribal people also act like jokers, promoting cooperation in a different species.

Posted By clonus,

clonus: You could indeed interpret the Joker effect as an example of inter-species conflict. Evolutionary game theory dynamics are, when parameterized correctly, and under certain conditions, mathematically equivalent to what is known as the Lotka-Voltera competition model, that was design to examine inter-species interaction.

Interestingly enough, I just fund this paper, entitled "The increased risk of predation enhances cooperation."

Check it out:


Awesome question! Keep them coming.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Greatly enjoyed this piece. I would like to offer, in my own minorly educated way, how Batman is necessary for the stability of the environment.

As you said, punishment is itself dangerous to stability and the phenotype involved, but when the social interaction of one is enough to sway the flow of genetic material, to create a symbolic, memetic legacy, it can have a lasting effect on the social structure.

So Batman himself is damaging the present, committing a very slow suicide, but if Batman were to selectively choose the Jokers that were allowed to reign free, then he effectively limits the amount of collateral damage and directs it into a lasting force of stability. By defeating villains and controlling the organized crime, Batman allows the Cooperators enough freedom to contribute, the Detractors enough time to lay low between beatdowns, and the Jokers enough leash to wreak havoc, perpetuating the cycle of building and destruction that is ideal to the three not-so-great possibilities in the environment.

The historical implications live on and when the phenotype dies, another steps into place. Eventually, the standard model may become:
Vigilantes (which may be a subset of Joker, with further analysis.)

After all, the Joker did tell Batman in "The Dark Knight" that they couldn't live without one another. And in, "What Happened to the Dark Knight" the Joker lamented that he wasn't able to kill Batman, that someone else got to him first, and if I remember right, that the game wasn't fun without Batman around.

Posted By gizzardgulpe,

I'm not sure if this is an over-intellectualized piece of ultranerd fiction or an actual attempt at philosophizing about the real world.

If it is the latter then you need to learn how to conceptualize from first principles. Generalizing humans into three arbitrary groups with opposing characteristics for no valid reason cannot possibly generate any valid conclusions about reality. This article analyzes the interactions of imaginary, arbitrary groups and then attempts to apply it's conclusions to real life- total insanity.
That's like if I wrote an article titled: "2 + 2 really does equal 5!" and then spent the entire article completely redefining the number system. It could be a fun logic puzzle- like a semantic sudoku but it doesn't say anything important.

Posted By Reasonous,

Possible outcome number 4: Batman stops ALL the Jokers and all the criminal Defectors and Gotham's public good is maximized. The day where it no longer needs him.

Posted By B47m4n,

@Reasonous: last I checked, cooking reality down to basic principles in order to examine the consequences a few simple logical rules IS THE DEFINITION OF THINKING FROM FIRST PRINCIPLES.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

So the Joker is Tyler Durden?

Posted By Bearywhite,

@B47m4n that makes for a nice and happy ending, but I think you missed the point of the article

Posted By combustion,

@Reasonous The author of this article didn't invent game theory. In short, scientific modelling is an integral tool toward understanding something rigorously. The basic process is a)propose a mechanism b)run the mechanism and collect predictions c) test predictions against empirically collected data d)refine or discard part "a".

You are concerned about the applicability of the theory proposed here to "reality", which is a valid concern. Game theory obviously holds a lot of internal validity, since it is a theoretical model which will always behave the same way under the same simulated conditions. It has also been shown that game theory is good for predicting/modelling the actions of animals that form small groups and whose groups operate on a short time scale, such as bees or deer. In the case of human civilizations, the potential for bias is considerable when collecting historical data related to a particular trend in the economy or to an era.

Somewhere between the cases where game theory has been applied rigorously and the cases where it has been used speciously lies the gulf of ambivalence that makes an article like this a big success.

Posted By nicepass,

nicepass, @nicepass!

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Interesting article overall, but they key point that *everyone* should take away from this:

"...or sound like post-Star Wars Mark Hamill (the best Joker of all time)."

Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gBWpWwIBKw

Posted By theoddone,

"Game theory explained" with some underlying assumptions, such as that punishment is so costly that it creates another problem of the commons, as the punishers (who are a subset of the cooperators) get less out of it than the non-punishing cooperators. However, in repeated games punishment is not a cost, but an investment: a threat must be carried out in order to be credible in the long run, and thus a cooperator who punishes a defector (or a 'joker' for that matter) is better positioned in subsequent games to be treated fairly.

Posted By mikkoj,

Cooperators and Defectors reproduction chance / rate depends on the amount of Resource they consumed (and the cost they paid for it). How do you calculate that for Jokers, if they don't consume the Resource? Do the Jokers who destroy more Resource reproduce better?

If the reproduction rate of Jokers isn't linked to Resource, should they be considered just a constant multiplier to the Resource generation / consumption, like e.g. weather conditions?

Posted By gollo,

@Brash Equilibrium I have to agree with a previous commenter that private ownership does alleviate the problem of Tragedy of the Commons; although you are correct in saying that Private Ownership does infer Private Rights that are not typically public rights, that is not to say the public can not be conferred some non-exclusive rights.

My example is below:


The Nature Conservancy organization with http://www.naturetrust.bc.ca/ have bought large tracts of land within the Province of British Columbia for conservation reasons. These organizations are championed by the local population as superior than a Provincial Park or National Park as it allows the members of the trust to determine it's use. Key issues are hunting, and powered-vehicle recreation which are banned in Canadian Parks.

This is a great example of a Private Ownership structure conferring public rights, though not exclusive or non-revocable rights. In order to accomplish their conservation goals, these groups may put in place land usage fees, and to enforce those fees they may employee private security to ensure their goals of a managed conservation land that meets the goals of the private ownership and greater public.

I may be making some errors in my description above, I am only recently self-describing myself as a libertarian but I do believe the example above is accurate and that Private ownership is a better solution.

See http://www.learnliberty.org/content/tragedy-commons for another example.

Posted By networkguy,

@gollo: there public good is fitness IN EXCESS of some baseline fitness, which is assumed to be the same for all of the strategies (thus it cancels out and you can ignore it). That's why Jokers make zero payoff. Now, the question is....is it realistic that Jokers do not benefit AT ALL from the public good?

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

@networkguy What you're talking about is a top-down mechanism that promotes the production of a public good. That's totally different than what this model is trying to explain, which is the maintenance of altruistic cooperation in the absence of such mechanisms. I'd have to agree that top-down mechanisms are one of the better ways to ensure the production of a public good, but I'd bet that Nature Conservancy is at best an exception to the rule that such top-down mechanisms also provide incentives for those who own the public good to game the system. Which is why I am -not- a libertarian.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Wouldn't the jokers search for whoever is more successful than them and then bring them down? So wouldn't it be useless to be a cooperator in scenario 2?

Posted By Sock it to me,

I still believe Batman is better

Posted By Millort,

I buy the theory but I am adding the fourth leg for it to stand, as it needs to be assymetrical. jokers and batmans do it alone? They need followers, at least 1, ask Hitler. In the case of joker he gets help even love from defectors and i assume that jokers are non other than Alpha defectors rising up the ranks.(Lex is the omega defector and naturally hates the alpha) Batman gets help and even love from "utopians", the fourth leg. These poor souls would actually prefer to live without a Batman just like defectors would also like it without jokers as you well mention. Even if utopians managed to catch the joker, they would give him a fair trial and try rehabilitating him, which is a joke from defectors' point of view and perhaps even Batman's athough he would play along. The next step is to make this static model dynamic. can alpha utopians turn into jokers or vice versa? Twoface... Cheers, Oso

Posted By Oso,

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