Reinhard Selten


Honorary Degree (2002)
Doctor of Laws
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: Myles Neil Brand


In January of 1945, the Red Army approached Reinhard Selten's native city of Breslau, in what was then Germany (now Wroczlaw, Poland). Orders came down to evacuate the city, and Selten and his parents walked from Breslau to Munich during that year's extremely cold winter—with about one million other former residents of the city. He resumed his schooling promptly, as a star student, and later went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Frankfurt.

It is a testament to Selten's persevering genius that in 1994 he rose to the top of his field and shared the Nobel Prize in Economics with John F. Nash and John C. Harsanyi for their development of game theory—a far cry from that bleak, cold walk so many years before

"Selten's brilliance, recognized in the highest distinction that humanity grants to intellectual excellence, no more than received its due when he received the Nobel Prize," writes Arun Agrawal, associate professor of political science at Yale University. "His work has now inspired more than a generation of economists, political scientists, game theorists, and sociologists. It withstands time."

Game theory, a branch of mathematics that examines rivalries among competitors with mixed interests, first caught Selten's eye in the late 1940s when he read an article about it in the magazine Fortune. Feeding this interest, Selten studied mathematics at the University of Frankfurt, earning his master's degree in 1957 and his Ph.D. in 1961. He went on to teach at the University of California, Berkeley; Free University of Berlin; the University of Bielefeld; and the University of Bonn, where he maintains an active research program, though retired.

Refining Nash's research (which was spotlighted in the 2002 Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind), Selten in 1965 proposed theories that distinguished between reasonable and unreasonable decisions in predicting the outcome of games. Also, Selten developed the notion of "perfectness" of equilibria, which has wide applications in the social sciences.

"Throughout the social sciences, analyses of human behavior regarding political action, economic development, market behavior and collusion, group formation and action, and environmental policy development depend critically on the insights provided by Professor Selten's work," says Gary D. Libecap, professor of economics and law at the University of Arizona. "As such, he has dramatically influenced modern research in economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology."

According to IU Associate Professor of Business Thomas P. Lyon, Selten has also contributed to work on evolutionary stability in repeated games, and has been instrumental in testing the implications of game theory in the laboratory. "To put it simply, Selten is a giant in the field," he says.

Selten's ties to Indiana University go back decades. After working with him on the research group called "Guidance, Control, and Performance Evaluation in the Public Sector" at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research of the University of Bielefeld, IU political science professors Vincent Ostrom and Elinor Ostrom invited Selten to spend a month in Bloomington in 1984. During this time, Selten gave several faculty seminars and worked closely with the IU Department of Economics. In the years since, the Ostroms and others have kept in close contact with Selten through a flurry of academic visits back and forth—not to mention a continuous exchange of papers, commentary, and visits by graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

"For years, Selten has been a wonderful colleague to many of us in the social sciences at Indiana University," says Elinor Ostrom, Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science; co-director of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change; and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

For IU Chancellor's Professor of Economics Roy Gardner, Selten has been "a scientific father." Whether sponsoring a fellowship, collaborating on research teams, or inviting Gardner to participate in his Summer Workshop on Experimental Games in Bonn, Selten is a model of collegiality. "Reinhard Selten has been my mentor and teacher, supporting me, my co-authors, and my students to an extent I could not have imagined possible from a Nobel Laureate in the United States, much less Germany," writes Gardner.

And Selten has warm feelings for his Indiana University colleagues. When visiting Bloomington in 1984, he remarked to Gardner, "There are only two places in the United States where I feel at home—Berkeley, California, and here."

"This Nobel Prize winner, who was born in Nazi Germany and who personally symbolizes the New Germany anchored in the European Union, is a Hoosier at heart," says Gardner.