Game theorist and mathematician Reinhard Selten passed away. A Tribute by Prof. Dr. Axel Ockenfels


We deeply regret to hear about the death of Reinhard Selten, who was a pioneer of behavioral research and game theory. With him we lose one of the most influential economists of our days. Reinhard Selten has inspired many of us with his work and his inexhaustible creativity and was a mentor and co-author to some of us. He also showed great interest in and supported the rapid development of economics at the UoC during the last years. We are grateful to him for his advice and commitment.

Reinhard Selten was driven by the desire to understand the nature of economic behavior. But he did not allow himself to be distracted by economic mainstream or by the opinions of others. This independence together with methodological brilliance and passion made him a pioneer in economic behavioral science.

In 1994 Reinhard Selten was awarded the Nobel Prize, together with John Harsanyi and John Nash, for his groundbreaking research in the field of game theory. He emphasized that the assumptions of game theory about the rationality of the players failed to stand a descriptive test, and that recommendations derived from game theory are difficult to convey. Confronted with the seeming contradiction in his works, Selten answered: “I am not schizophrenic, I am a methodological dualist. I believe that it is useful to think about how fully rational actors would behave, because individuals finally pursue rationality. On the other hand it is important to look at the actual behavior of individuals, because actors are not capable to act fully rational.”

Reinhard Selten distinguished three sources of economic behavior in his works: adaption, motivation, and cognition. All three areas have been neglected by economists, but our knowledge about them has improved greatly during the last years – also as a result of our research endeavors in Cologne.

I am also personally grateful and happy that Reinhard Selten guided and inspired me during my research career, starting with supervising my Diploma thesis up to joint projects in the recent past. I am sad that this era has come to an end now.

There are still big challenges and goals in behavior research. Reinhard Selten would surely have liked to further shape the future of economics. On August 23rd he died at age 85. We will always honor his memory.  

Axel Ockenfels