If you are going to interact with a person or group many times—if the relationship matters—cooperate first, watch what they do, then do what they did, in the next round. Cooperate as long as they cooperate, defect as long as they defect. Reward good behavior, punish bad. This is the best strategy. Or such at least is the result that emerges from a contest organized by the eminent political scientist Robert Axelrod.
Axelrod invited the world’s top game theorists to write computer programs for a tournament consisting of thousands of rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. (In this dilemma, two people are arrested, placed in separate cells, and told to talk. If they cooperate with each other and remain silent, each will receive only a minor sentence. If they betray each other, each will receive a heavy sentence. If one talks and the other does not, the betrayer walks while the loyal one gets an even heavier sentence.) The winner of Axelrod’s contest was a simple program known as “Tit for Tat“, which cooperated in the first round, then did whatever its partner had done in the prior round. With only four lines of code, this program beat out significantly more complex competitors.
While the empirical evidence is new, the insight is not. Writing five-hundred years ago, Machiavelli counseled thus:
A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.
Relationships matter (more so in an indelible world). Preserve them, and ensure they’re preserved.
“For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.“
References and further reading:
Robert Axelrod. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books
Brad Feld. 2009-05-08. Relationships matter – A lot. Feld Thoughts
Brad Feld. 2010-11-22. The 5 to 1 Rule Applied to Relationships. Feld Thoughts
Niccolò Machiavelli. 1513. The Prince. Oxford University Press, 2005. Trans. Peter Bondanella.
Wikipedia. Nice Guys Finish First (1986 documentary by Richard Dawkins)
Wikipedia. Reciprocal altruism