Although “calling someone a chicken for cowardice,” as Barry O’Neill remarks in deferring to the Oxford English Dictionary, “probably goes back at least to the fifteenth century” (264), the accepted naming of this social dilemma did not occur until Bertrand Russell’s meditation on Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959). Although not a game theorist, Russell figures the Cold War in logical and ludic terms, as his contemplation of superpower leaders flexing each other’s nerves testifies. “Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent,” writes Russell, “the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship.’” This attitude, relates Russell, is “adapted from a sport which, I am told, is […] called ‘Chicken!’” This scenario “is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other,” observes Russell, “mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!,’ and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt” (19).
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