October 06, 2006


Caption: The lessons of game theory can help one avoid some sticky situations.

This is the final post on some useful aspects of game theory in trying to promote cooperation and achieve positive goals. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the four earlier posts.

The basic ideas of reciprocity or TIT FOR TAT as a good strategy in Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation are pretty simple and pretty ancient.

According to the Analects, when Confucius (551-479 BC) was asked "Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?" The sage replied "Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, "Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life."

While the word "instinct" is a bit strong for El Cabrero, Haidt argues that we are biologically predisposed to it:

...what is really built into the person is a strategy: Play tit for tat. Do to others what they do unto you. Specifically, the tit-for-tat strategy is to be nice on the first round if interaction; but after that, do to your partner whatever your partner did to you on the previous round. Tit for tat takes us way beyond kin altruism. It opens the possibility of forming cooperative relationships with strangers.

But however deep the roots of reciprocity are in history and biology, and however simple the TIT FOR TAT strategy is, people are pretty good at screwing it up or not getting it to start with. Here are some ways:

*ALL D ALL THE TIME. The folks in the Bush administration have to be among the all time losers in the Prisoner's Dilemma tournament. Their strategy to anyone outside the ruling clique seems to be ALL D, which is to defect on everyone else all the time (even if they try to cooperate). This is one reason US foreign policy is such a, yes, goat rope.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many countries, including those such as Iran which had troubled relations with the US, made overtures of cooperation. Rather than reciprocating cooperation, the administration responded with imperial arrogance, insults, bullying, an unnecessary war opposed by most of the world, backpedaling in international agreements, etc. They have pursued similarly polarizing strategies domestically, even with leaders of the U.S. military.

(Uhhh...when you defect all the time to everybody, you shouldn't be too surprised if they start doing the same to you.)

And while TIT FOR TAT calls for responding to provocations, the administration fixated on invading a nation which had nothing to do with Sept. 11 while bungling efforts to deal with the actual sources of terrorist threats (which requires international cooperation).

However, there are other ways to screw up reciprocity besides ALL D.

*EXCESSIVE PAYBACK OR NONE AT ALL. Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister noted that a "magnitude gap" exists between the perceptions of victims and perpetrators. Typically, what for perps is no big deal is a huge deal to people on the receiving end. This means that when victims respond to the perp's actions, revenge is often out of proportion to the original offense, making violence not just cycle but spiral. Even if retaliations are measured, in the Prisoner's Dilemma scenario reciprocity can lead to an endless chain of defections.

But letting people get by with nasty behavior doesn't do anyone any favors either. Game theory shows that it is necessary to respond to defection (or aggression) to discourage bad behavior, but it doesn't say just how to do so in a given situation. That takes skill, wisdom, and moderation.

The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu pointed in the right direction when he suggested that one should achieve results without excessive force, using only as much energy as necessary and doing the least possible harm. That's easier said than done, but it's probably more practical in the end than unconditional cooperation in the face of unprovoked defection or excessive retaliation for it.

*ACTING LIKE IT'S ENDGAME WHEN IT ISN'T. We'd all probably be better if we acted as if we were playing a long game with the people and groups in our lives. The incentives for sticking it to someone drop dramatically if you have to deal with the same person over and over and they can choose to retaliate. That long term perspective helps people to "fight fair" when they disagree.

(That is especially necessary in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, where people know each other and don't forget a trick.)

Conversely, short term, tunnel-vision thinking is a well-trod road to disaster in just about every aspect of human endeavor.

That's about it from Goat Rope Farm. Y'all play nice. El Cabrero will do the same. At least at first.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

awesome spider!!!