John Nash’s notion of equilibrium is ubiquitous in economic theory, but a new study shows that it is often impossible to reach efficiently

Erica Klarreich in Quanta:

In 1950, John Nash — the mathematician later featured in the book and film “A Beautiful Mind” — wrote a two-page paper that transformed the theory of economics. His crucial, yet utterly simple, idea was that any competitive game has a notion of equilibrium: a collection of strategies, one for each player, such that no player can win more by unilaterally switching to a different strategy.

Nash’s equilibrium concept, which earned him a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994, offers a unified framework for understanding strategic behavior not only in economics but also in psychology, evolutionary biology and a host of other fields. Its influence on economic theory “is comparable to that of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences,” wrote Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago, another economics Nobelist.

When players are at equilibrium, no one has a reason to stray. But how do players get to equilibrium in the first place? In contrast with, say, a ball rolling downhill and coming to rest in a valley, there is no obvious force guiding game players toward a Nash equilibrium.

“It has always been a thorn in the side of microeconomists,” said Tim Roughgarden, a theoretical computer scientist at Stanford University.

More here.