Sometimes, a simple game can unveil some of the world’s wisdom in unexpected ways. University of Michigan political science professor Robert Axelrod used the prisoner’s dilemma to do just that.
What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma? Here is an explanation from Wikipedia:
“You and a criminal associate have been busted. Fortunately for you, most of the evidence was shredded, so you are facing only a year in prison. But the prosecutor wants to nail someone, so he offers you a deal: if you squeal on your associate – which will result in his getting a five-year stretch – the prosecutor will see that six months is taken off of your sentence. Which sounds good, until you learn your associate is being offered the same deal – which would get you five years.
So what do you do? The best that you and your associate can do together is to not squeal: that is, to cooperate (with each other, not the prosecutor!) in a mutual bond of silence, and do your year. But wait: if your associate cooperates, can you do better by squealing (“defecting”) to get that six-month reduction? It’s tempting, but then he’s also tempted. And if you both squeal, oh, no, it’s four and half years each. So perhaps you should cooperate – but wait, that’s being a sucker yourself, as your associate will undoubtedly defect, and you won’t even get the six months off. So what is the best strategy to minimize your incarceration (aside from going straight in the first place)?”
Axelrod created tournaments where software developers wrote digital applications of a prisoner’s dilemma strategy that would play other applications of a different prisoner’s dilemma strategy a hundred times each. After multiple tournaments with myriad different complex strategies employed… a simple strategy consistently won.
It was named “Tit for Tat”. In the strategy… you always start out trusting and cooperating with your associate. So long as they cooperate as well, you continue to cooperate in successive rounds. However, if they defect, then you defect in the next round.. In other words, you simply do whatever they did in the previous rounds.
That simple strategy, that consistently won the prisoner’s dilemma tournaments, holds the secret for successful, robust cooperation in society:
- Be nice: Cooperate, never be the first to “defect” in your relationships.
- Be provocable: Return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation. You must stand up for yourself when someone betrays your trust.
- Don’t be envious: Focus on maximizing your own score, as opposed to ensuring your score is higher than your partner / competitor.
- Don’t try to be tricky. Clarity is essential for others to cooperate with you. Be trustworthy.
Said differently: The first principle is to be kind. However, a pushover would easily lose the game of life. Therefore, you have to be provokable and show mental toughness.
Finally, you must be forgiving and open to trusting / reestablishing trust.
Nice, Provokable, Forgiving; That is a nice little recipe for balancing success with robust relationships.
Just my opinion. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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