The Game Theory of Safety and Safety Pins

by Rob Hansen

A new viral fad is sweeping through in the wake of the Trump election: people wearing safety pins as a way to signal… well, what, exactly?  When I was growing up it signaled you were a member of the punk subculture and you’d kind of like someone to try and make something of it.  Today it signals you’re a member of the subculture that looks out for minorities and the oppressed and you’d kind of like someone to try and make something of it.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose, and all that.

Let’s look at this through the lens of game theory.  Game theory should really be called interactive choice theory, because that’s what it studies: what emerges from how your choices interact with other persons’ choices.  How does the choice to wear a safety pin affect the choices made by oppressed people and their oppressors?

I need to start with a disclaimer. If you want to walk down the street naked covered in lye and lime Jell-O, your neighbors may think you’re batty but game theory won’t be joining in.  That kind of judgment is for morality and philosophy; game theory concerns itself only with how different choices interact.  From a moral standpoint, oppression of your fellow human being is Profoundly Uncool and standing up for them is Good And Right… but how does your choice of wearing a safety pin change things?  That’s a question we can explore without delving into morality.

There are four “people” (actually groups) in this game: Victims, who are prey for Predators; Predators, who want to oppress Victims; Bystanders, who want to remain uninvolved; and Heroes, whom Victims may call upon for help against Predators.  Further: in this game, only Predators and Victims are guaranteed to understand the rules, Bystanders don’t want to know the rules, and Heroes may or may not know the rules.  Additionally, anyone may impersonate a Hero.  Finally: Victims have played this game thousands of times.

That last one, we’ll see, is a real problem.

From the perspective of a Victim, should you rely on a Hero to intervene?  Absolutely not: if you had a history of Heroes intervening successfully, you wouldn’t be a Victim.  In prior rounds of this game Heroes have not been reliable allies, ergo Victims believe Heroes will be unreliable allies this time.

Should Victims rely on Heroes to remain aloof?  Absolutely not.  Heroes have a bad record of getting involved and making things worse, as well as not getting involved when they could make things better.

Should Victims rely on Heroes to understand the rules?  No.  Victims have played this out so many times they’ve got it down to a T.  Heroes are still making beginner’s errors.  Given the stakes, Victims are scared Heroes will make things worse.

Now let’s look at the Predator side of the game.  Predators love Heroes.  They love Heroes because the people who potentially have the skill and expertise to intervene—and foil their hunt—have been so thoughtful as to wear an identifiable uniform.  When a Predator sees a safety pin their reaction is not, “oh, I suppose I should change my ways”—it’s “if I wait until he or she goes away I can hunt without interruption.”  The presence of a safety pin does makes the Predator’s life better by making it less risky for them to hunt.  Think about that one a moment.

The other reason Predators love Heroes is it’s so easy to impersonate a Hero.  If a Predator wears a safety pin and then harasses a Victim, the Victim is going to further distrust Heroes—driving a wedge between them and the Heroes who exist to help them.  So it’s in a Predator’s best interest to wear a safety pin and masquerade as a Hero!

Now let’s look at the Bystanders, who don’t give a damn.  Okay, we’re done.

Finally, look at the Heroes.  They can’t … wait a minute … the Heroes generally don’t understand the rules.  Okay, we’re done.

Add all of this together, and how does the game evolve?  Bystanders continue to bystand.  Victims continue to be victimized by Predators.  Predators put on safety pins to be mistaken for Heroes.  And Predators wait until other safety-pin wearing people have left the area before they move in for the kill, because that’s the best play.

So if you’re thinking of being a Hero, for the love of God, know the game you’re getting into, the players involved, and their basic strategies.

Do not expect Victims to come to you voluntarily.  They won’t.

Do not expect Victims to welcome your intervention.  They quite likely would rather you didn’t.

Expect Predators to wear safety pins.

Don’t leave a single safety-pinned Hero in the presence of Victims.  There’s a good chance you’ve just left a wolf among the sheep.

Understand that Victims have literally decades of experience with people like you letting them down.  Study why good people like you have completely failed them in the past.  See if you can avoid becoming one more in a long and undistinguished line.

If you still want to hook on a safety pin, go with God.  You have an admirable goal.  But until and unless you take the responsibility seriously…

Sincerity achieves nothing without an awful lot of hard work attached.


If you are going to engage in anti-harassment behavior, here’s a checklist.

Notice your surroundings.  Harassers doing it ‘for the lulz’ – they feed off of the outrage and anxiety they create.  It’s the thrill of being an asshole and the agony of their victims.  Their thrill is transitory, and it relies on a lot of bystanders not paying attention to them.

Engage proactively.  Ask the target of harassment if they’re OK.  Let them know that you’re there to help; feeling isolated and alone makes harassment work.   Ask them how you can help before taking any other action.

Record the harasser.  Harassers rely on being able to “move unnoticed.” Look them in the eye, take their pictures if you can, get enough information about them to report to police.

De-escalate and redirect.  Tell the harasser that what they’re doing is not acceptable.  Not to you, not to anyone else.  Don’t engage them in conversation, don’t ask them “Why?”  Both of those feed into the harasser feeling legitimated.  Just say “Not acceptable behavior. Go somewhere else.”

Stay safe.  Let the victim leave the scene on their own terms.  Block the harasser from following them, avoid starting a fight.  Harassers are looking for an easy mark; they’re vultures, not wolves.  They want people to fear them, they generally lack the stomach for active resistance.