On Cooperation

Eliciting Good Behavior

            The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a demonstration of game theory, in which two individuals are placed at odds with one another with two clear-cut choices: cooperation or defection.  The game is quite simple; the players individually take a stand on whether to cooperate or not, with their potential reward looming on their response.  In case of both individuals cooperating, we’ll denote this as R, a reward of 3 points is given to each individual.  In the case of mutual defections, denoted as P, each is punished for their lack of cooperation, by given 1 point.  However, in the case of one individual cooperating and the other defecting, the cooperative player, S, receives 0 points while as the defecting player, T, receives 5 points.  Thus, the highest allotted points potentially to be received can be written as T>R>P>S.  The expected value for a player who defects is 3, a greater value in comparison to the mere 1.5 for the player who cooperates.  Thus, a question arises: when should a player cooperate?  Clearly, the best option is to defect, so individual rationality leads to a worse outcome for both players, as 3 points allotted each (had they both cooperated) is greater than 1, hence the dilemma.  However, this is just a single case; what if the individuals could potentially meet again, would it change their answers?  To test the best course of action, Robert Axelrod formed a tournament in which different computer programs could be submitted to participate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to see which course of action was the most efficient, i.e. received the highest “score.”  The conclusion of the experiment was that the most effective strategy was the TIT FOR TAT strategy.

            TIT FOR TAT was one of the most simplistic strategies, yet proven by the results, the most logical.  The policy of TIT FOR TAT is quite simple – be cooperative, be retaliatory to defections, yet forgiveness and willingness to go back to cooperation.  What is important to state in this game, and in life in general, is that it is not a zero-sum game.  That is, there are plenty of ways for individuals to interact with mutual gains on both ends.  Cooperation drives its power from the potential of another encounter between the two individuals.  Although the short-sighted player might realize that the expected value and immediate gains of defection are greater than that of cooperation, the possibility of meeting in the future means that the choices made today not only determine the immediate outcome, but also those in the future.  Even the most egotistical and self-centered people realize that they gain more via cooperation.  Not surprisingly, the computer programs submitted in the tournament that scored the best were those which were the ones which made sure not to be the first to defect, which we will call “nice” programs. 

            Intrigued by the results, Axelrod then conducted a follow up experiment.  He published the results of the first experiment, making it clear and explicit that TIT FOR TAT was the most efficient, to see if programmers would learn from their mistakes.  Not surprisingly, more “nice” programs were submitted in comparison to “mean” programs, those which try to gain a higher score by sneaking in an occasional defection to receive the higher allotment of points.  Such programs, however, once again proved to be a failure as TIT FOR TAT again received the highest score.  What this case study reveals is that it does not pay to be greedy.  By trying to sneak in the occasional defection, “mean” programs set off a long chain of recriminations and counter-recriminations.  Thus, a single defection can result in an echo effect, with both sides suffering the consequences.  TIT FOR TAT’s success comes from its clarity.  “Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble.  Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried.  Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation” (54).  Entries into the tournament were too competitive for their own good.  Even expert strategists did not give enough consideration towards the importance of forgiveness.

            The mutual gains of cooperation can be illustrated through countless, everyday life examples.  Take taxes for example.  It is safe to assume there is no one who enjoys paying taxes.  Yet, by paying taxes, an ignoring the temptation of yielding the immediate results enjoyed by not paying, we all relish the benefits in the long run i.e. better schooling, roads, safety and health.  One particular case study where the benefits of cooperation were exemplified, surprisingly enough, was through trench warfare in WWI.  As the trench lines stabilized, nonaggression between battalions positioned across from each other emerged.  A standard policy of reciprocation became placed into effect; for every one of our men killed, we’ll aim to kill 2, and vice versa.  While targeting the enemies supply wagons may limit their rations, their response is quite simple: they will prevent you from drawing yours.  A live-and-let-live system was established, until eventually executive officers forced raids on opposing trenches.  Thus, the TIT FOR TAT systematic approach is portrayed, as soldiers cooperatively make use of nonaggression when it can be pertained, yet demonstrate retaliatory capabilities when need be.  Arguably the most important lesson this provides is that friendship is not required for cooperation to work.  Under certain circumstances, cooperation can arise, and do so effectively, even amongst antagonists.

            However, we cannot always expect to experience the benefits of cooperation.  There do remain the individuals who are enticed by the immediate gains of defection, but can this be changed?  The results of Axelrod’s show us they can.  In a society composed of “mean” entities, it only takes a mere 5% of “nice” like-minded individuals to challenge the governing norm.  This is because a population of “nice” individuals works so well with each other.  Though the majority of their interactions experienced where with that of “mean” individuals, when placed with another person willing to cooperate, their gains were exponential.  Secondly, what Axelrod’s experiment revealed, is that people’s strategies can change.  In the second round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament, a majority of “nice” programs were submitted, while “mean” programs took up the majority in the first tournament.  The better a strategy does, the more representation it will grow.  The process essentially simulates survival of the fittest, and proves a small group of cooperative individuals can alter the ignorance and short-mindedness of those unwilling to cooperate. 

            However, to experience the full bountiful effects of cooperation, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.  Arguably the most important among these is to avoid being envious.  As stated earlier, much of life is not zero-sum; both participating parties can mutually gain from an interaction, albeit at different levels.  Most people resort to the only standard of comparison available – the success of the other player.  While it may be demoralizing to see that the other player is doing better, it shouldn’t matter.  The proof is in the TIT FOR TAT strategy.  Although it collectively was the most successful strategy in the tournaments held, it didn’t once score better in a game than the other player.  In fact, in couldn’t, because TIT FOR TAT always lets the other player defect first, so the best it can potentially do is a tie.  “TIT FOR TAT won the tournament, not by beating the other player, but by eliciting behavior from the other player which allowed both to do well” (112).  The other player in the Prisoner’s Dilemma should not be regarded as someone you are trying to compete with.  Both sides can, in fact, benefit from mutual cooperation.  In this world we live in, we are always adapting – adapting to the environment and the people it is composed of.  By individually adapting to this mindset of cooperation, we are not only bettering ourselves, but the world around us as well.

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