October 05, 2006


Caption: If you get in a game with Venus, watch out!

This is the fourth post in a series about practical lessons from game theory as discussed by Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation.

(Short version: there are some.)

If this is your first visit to Goat Rope, please scroll down to the previous entries.

To recap, Part 1 introduced the topic of game theory and asked the following question: "Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egotists without central authority?"

Part 2 introduced the Prisoner's Dilemma, a scenario used to study how people choose to cooperate or defect. Like much of real life and unlike a chess game, the Prisoner's Dilemma doesn't have to be a win/lose proposition. Both parties could benefit or both could lose.

Part 3 was about TIT FOR TAT, the most successful strategy for eliciting cooperation when players must deal with each other again and again. TIT FOR TAT is based on simple reciprocity. It starts out nice, responds when provoked, and resumes cooperation when the other player does.

Today's post is about how cooperation can be promoted. Admittedly, cooperation itself is morally neutral since people can cooperate to do all kinds of nasty things. Still, it's hard to get anything positive done without it.

Probably more than anything else, repeated interaction with others is the best climate in which cooperation can grow. If people think they will never meet again, they have less incentive to cooperate and will be more likely to defect.

This is also true when the game about to end. To use some common examples, a lame duck politician will have trouble setting the agenda (this is not always a bad thing); a gang leader or dictator may command less obedience if he or she is seen as losing power, becoming terminally ill, etc.; a business known to be about to fold will have trouble collecting bills.

As Axelrod notes, "The foundation of cooperation is not really trust, but the durability of the relationship." For example, during the Cold War, both sides flirted with brinkmanship but neither went over the edge since they knew they were playing a long game.

Destructive behavior is often associated with short-term thinking. Prudence should dictate that one should never discount the possibility that one may meet the other party again...and that they will remember.

Here are some ways to promote cooperation:

*Emphasize the future. Axelrod advises those who want to promote cooperation to "enlarge the shadow of the future" by promoting more frequent and durable interactions.

*"Decompose" complex negotiations. (Game theory is all about cool jargon). Decomposition in this context just means breaking down complex negotiations into many small steps or stages so that reciprocity has more time to develop.

*Change the payoffs. If there is less incentive for people to defect, they may do it less. This is one of the main functions of government, policies, rules, coalitions, and even informal social norms. Having state police patrol the highways reduces the payoff for those who defect by driving recklessly.

(If you think about it, one of the social functions of religion is to convince people that the game is long and that the payoffs for defection are not that great in the end.)

*Teach people to care about others. As Axelrod puts it,

In game theory terms, this means that parents try to shape the values of children so that the preferences of the new citizens will incorporate not only their own individual welfare, but the welfare of others. Without a doubt, a society of such caring people will have an easier time attaining cooperation among its members, even when caught in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.

*Teach reciprocity. While this means cooperating when the other party does, it also means responding when provoked. Unconditional cooperation or letting the other player get away with nasty behavior "can not only hurt you, but it can hurt other innocent bystanders with whom the successful exploiters will interact later."

By contrast, responding when provoked "actually helps not only oneself, but others as well. It helps by making it hard for exploiting strategies to survive." Communities that practice reciprocity are in effect self-policing since anti-social behaviors are not rewarded and are thus less attractive.

(The trick, of course, is responding in a measured way that doesn't trigger endless defections or widen the spiral of conflict.)

*Improve recognition abilities. This means not only recognizing cooperation and defection when they happen, but also recognizing others one has interacted with in the past so that prior actions can be considered.

Next time: practical conclusions.


1 comment:

mwildfire said...

This is yet another reason why the Rapture cult is so incredibly dangerous. It leaves millions of its adherents believing that the whole Game is about to be over and the normal rules don't therefore apply. That an all-powerful, simplistic Old Testament-type God is about to arrive and burn everyone except the Rapturists to death slowly.