Rebirth of Reason

Favorite EditSanction this itemThe Evolution of Cooperation* by Robert Axelrod
The Evolution of Cooperation*Suppose that two strangers have agreed to an exchange that must be kept secret. They agree on the money price for the good being exchanged, and they agree on separate pickup locations for the money and the good. The purchaser of the good then calculates: If I leave the money and she leaves the good, that is good (R = reward for cooperation). But if I leave the money and she does not leave the good, that is the worst outcome (S = suckerís loss). If I do not leave the good, that is the very best (T = temptation). Finally, if I leave no money and she leaves no good (P = punishment), that is worse than trade (R), but better than sucker (S). No matter what she does, I am better off to leave no money; I risk no loss and I gain a lot if she takes the suckerís loss. Since the seller of the good goes through the same calculations, nothing is exchangedóthere is no cooperation.

The preceding situation (T>R>P>S, in terms of each participantís own utilities) is known in formal game theory as Prisonerís Dilemma. One way out of the dilemma is to divide the exchange (if the good is divisible) into a sequence of smaller exchanges. Some cooperation can then emerge. But it can be foreseen by the parties that the final exchange would be just the old single-shot Prisonerís Dilemma with all the stakes scaled down, and this foresight bodes ill for the exchanges preceding the last. More cooperation is possible if the exchange can be iterated by multiplication, that is, if the parties have a present interest in repeating the exchange an indefinite number of times in the future.

The iterated Prisonerís Dilemma has important applications in personal, business, and political relationships. It underlies the political and military relations between the two superpowers. It would be good to know what the best strategy is for a player in the iterated Prisonerís Dilemma. Robert Axelrod has investigated this question and has reported his findings in The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books 1984).

Axelrod solicited entries for a computer tournament to see how various strategies fare when paired against each other in an iterated Prisonerís Dilemma. Each program specified whether to cooperate or defect (not cooperate) on the next move, having the complete history of the present match available for use in reaching its decision. The award points reflected the Prisonerís Dilemma payoffs. For example, with (T = 5) > (R = 3) > (P = 0) > (S = -2), two opponents each choosing to cooperate in the next move would each be awarded three points. The points were totaled for each player for each match and the match scores were averaged over the number of matches to arrive at each playerís tournament score. And the winner was . . .

Actually, there were two tournaments. The second tournament was largeró62 entries, as opposed to 14 in the firstóand its strategies were drawn up with full knowledge of the results from the first tournament. A program named TIT FOR TAT won both tournaments. It had the simplest prescription of all: cooperate on the first move and thereafter do whatever the opponent did on the preceding move.

TIT FOR TAT accumulated the most tournament points but in no match did it receive more points than its opponents. It cannot score more than its opponent because it lets the opponent defect first and it will never defect a greater number of times than its opponent. It is one thing to do better than oneís opponent; it may be quite another to do well for oneself. High tournament scores were achieved only by strategies that were nice, that is, they were never the first to defect. The nice rules did well largely because they did well with each other and because there were enough of them to substantially raise each otherís scores.

One not-so-nice strategy DOWNING was especially important in determining the rank among the nice rules. DOWNING tries to understand its opponent. If the opponent does not seem responsive to what DOWNING is doing, DOWNING defects; if the opponent does seem responsive, DOWNING cooperates. Nice rules that do not retaliate are pulled down by DOWNING.

One of the lowest-ranking nice rules FRIEDMAN employed permanent retaliation. TIT FOR TAT does better by forgiving after only one retaliation. In fact, in the environment of the first tournament, a program that was not entered TIT FOR TWO TATS (i.e., defect only after the opponent defects twice in a row), would have done even better than TIT FOR TAT. This is because TIT FOR TAT gets locked into unending mutual recriminations when playing against rules that are otherwise like itself but which sneak in an occasional unprovoked defection. This is an important drawback to using TIT FOR TAT in real world applications in which there is some uncertainty about what an opponent did on the previous move. Axelrod suggests using a fraction of a tit for an uncertain tat.

In the second tournament TIT FOR TWO TATS was entered, but it came in twenty-fourth. TIT FOR TWO TATS was badly exploited by TESTER which defects on the first move, cooperates on the second and third, and thereafter defects on every other move until its opponent defects. One tat is far better than two tats when tit tatting with TESTER because, once its opponent defects, TESTER reforms and becomes TIT FOR TAT. TIT FOR TWO (or more) TATS is one of the few strategies which could suffer greatly by advance publication to its opponents.

TIT FOR TAT also benefits in virtue of the fact that it is a very common strategy and is relatively easy to recognize. Opponents know they are likely to encounter it and the only way to do well with it is to cooperate.

If everyone in an environment is using the same strategy and if there is no better strategy for a player to adopt in that environment, then the strategy is said to be collectively stable. Axelrod demonstrates that in order for a nice strategy to be collectively stable, it must be provoked by the very first defection. A nice strategy such as TIT FOR TAT will be collectively stable provided time preferences are sufficiently low, that is, if future cooperation is not valued steeply less than present cooperation. Furthermore, if a nice strategy cannot be destabilized by a single deviant player, it also cannot be destabilized by a cluster of deviants.

The totally uncooperative strategy ALWAYS DEFECT is also collectively stable. But if deviants arrive in clusters in a world of ALWAYS DEFECT, cooperation among deviants can begin, provided the probability of a deviant interacting with another deviant is sufficiently greater than the probability of a deviant interacting with an ALWAYS DEFECT. The requisite size of a cluster of deviants is smallest for those strategies that will cooperate even if the present opponent has not already cooperated and, once it cooperates, will never again cooperate with ALWAYS DEFECT, but will always cooperate with its own kind. TIT FOR TAT is such a strategy. It can enter a world of meanies very efficiently and entrench itself there quite securely.

Our world generally offers a little more room for maneuver than did the computer tournaments. As noted by Axelrod, a significant portion of the human brain is devoted to the task of recognizing the individual human face. However, when beginning an interaction with a stranger, immediately observable indications of sex, age, race, wealth, education, and so forth are used as cues to individual character on the expectation that the stranger will behave like others who share the same characteristics. Using his theoretical results, Axelrod is able to explain many of the features of social labels, stereotypes, and status hierarchies. The collectively stability of TIT FOR TAT underlies the cruel fact that stereotypes can be stable, even when they are not based on objective fact.

Axelrodís most detailed historical application is the case of the unauthorized ceasefires that occurred in so many locations in the trench warfare of World War I. The iterated Prisonerís Dilemma was there. These spontaneous little ceasefires were quite dependable and proceeded purely by tacit agreement. They endured until the top brass finally destroyed the conditions necessary for cooperation. Also cited is the case of a certain folkway that emerged in the early years of the U.S. Senate. It involves helping out a colleague and getting repaid in kind. Some readers will doubt whether this sort of cooperation benefits the public.

*This review of mine appeared in Nomos magazine in spring 1985.

Added by Stephen Boydstun
on 1/19/2010, 2:39am

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