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Can computers teach us everything we need to know about cooperation?


I’ve posted before about Robert Axelrod’s research on cooperation; computers were assigned different strategies in the famous prisoner’s dilemma and for thousands upon thousands of rounds they faced each other to see which method led to the most success.

The best strategy by far turned out to be one we’re all familiar with: tit-for-tat.

In chapter six of his book, The Evolution of Cooperation, Axelrod explains how we can translate the findings of these computer tournaments into advice that’s useful in our everyday lives.

What should we do when we have to make decisions in an atmosphere where cooperation is uncertain?

1) Don’t be envious.

We usually look around us for a standard to see how well we’re doing. Often, we compare ourselves to the person on the other side of the table. The problem with this is that most of life is not a zero-sum game.

Just because someone else is doing better doesn’t mean we’re doing badly. Focusing too much on the other person often leads to envy and a desire to bring them down or do better than them, rather than maintaining our focus on just increasing our own accomplishment.

Better to make a million dollars and have the other guy make two million than to make one dollar and have the other guy make fifty cents. I’d rather be a millionaire loser.

“Tit-for-tat won the tournament, not by beating the other player, but by eliciting from the other player behavior that allowed both to do well.”

2) Don’t be the first to defect.

One thing the computer tournament proved pretty firmly was that it pays to cooperate as long as the other side is cooperating:

“The single best predictor of how well a rule performed was whether or not it was nice, which is to say, whether or not it would ever be first to defect.”

By defecting, they mean that the other guy cooperates and you take advantage of them. Being the first to defect can set off a chain reaction that may put you slightly ahead but kills future gains. It can be hard to stop the cascade of mutual retaliation that results.

3) Reciprocate both cooperation and defection.

This rule turned out to be incredibly robust. All it required was imitating the other player’s last move. If they’re cooperative, you cooperate. If they screw you, you screw them back.

Echoing the first lesson, consistent reciprocation may not put you ahead of the the other player but with time it educates them that, all other things being equal, it’s clearly more profitable to work with you than not.

4) Don’t be too clever.

Complex rules always did poorly in the tournament. Simple rules like tit-for-tat fared better.

Complexity usually means assuming things about the other player and those assumptions are usually wrong. Being tricky led to waves of mutual defection and mistrust.

In trying to cooperate, communication is key. And the only real communication is how you act. Simple systems that allow the other player to understand how you work allow them to trust you and to align their behavior for mutual gain.

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