Backwards induction in the centipede game

Analysis 59 (264):237–242 (1999)
Abstract
The standard backward-induction reasoning in a game like the centipede assumes that the players maintain a common belief in rationality throughout the game. But that is a dubious assumption. Suppose the first player X didn't terminate the game in the first round; what would the second player Y think then? Since the backwards-induction argument says X should terminate the game, and it is supposed to be a sound argument, Y might be entitled to doubt X's rationality. Alternatively, Y might doubt that X believes Y is rational, or that X believes Y believes X is rational, or Y might have some higher-order doubt. X’s deviant first move might cause a breakdown in common belief in rationality, therefore. Once that goes, the entire argument fails. The argument also assumes that the players act rationally at each stage of the game, even if this stage could not be reached by rational play. But it is also dubious to assume that past irrationality never exerts a corrupting influence on present play. However, the backwards-induction argument can be reconstructed for the centipede game on a more secure basis.1 It may be implausible to assume a common belief in rationality throughout the game, however the game might go, but the argument requires less than this. The standard idealisations in game theory certainly allow us to assume a common belief in rationality at the beginning of the game. They also allow us to assume this common belief persists so long as no one makes an irrational move. That is enough for the argument to go through.
Keywords backward induction  centipede game  rationality
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