How Can Strategies Foster or Destroy Cooperation?

Direct reciprocity is one of the main theories to explain cooperation among humans. It's been studied for at least 50 or 60 years, but work over the last six years has allowed for a completely new look at this idea. (Image: geralt via Pixabay)

If you’re an optimist, you probably believe that humanity is inherently into cooperation and willing to sacrifice for the greater good of all. If you’re a pessimist, on the other hand, chances are you believe that, in the end, people will always do what is in their own self-interest.

But if you’re Martin Nowak, you know that the truth is that it’s a matter of context.

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A Professor of Mathematics and Biology, and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Nowak is the senior author of a study that showed, across repeated interactions, the environment individuals find themselves in can effect whether they act as either partners or rivals.

The study is described in a recently-published paper in Nature Human Behavior. Nowak said in a statement:

To understand how different strategies can emerge in direct reciprocity situations, Nowak and colleagues Christian Hilbe and Krishnendu Chatterjee (both from the Institute of Science and Technology, Austria) began with a classic paradigm from game theory — the prisoner’s dilemma.

A game about cooperation

The game works like this. When faced with the chance to interact, two individuals must decide whether to cooperate or defect. If both cooperate, both receive a reward.

If one person defects while the other chooses to cooperate, the defector collects a larger reward, while the other person gets nothing. If both defect, both receive a reward, albeit one that is smaller than the reward for cooperation.

If players behave in a purely logical fashion, the best strategy is to defect, because it is in their self-interest to try to maximize their reward. Nowak explained:

While that realization might seem to push players toward cooperation, the partner strategy is not one where players simply cooperate all the time, Nowak said:

Someone playing a partner strategy can’t simply keep cooperating — if they did, it would be easy for other players to exploit them. While a partner may sometimes retaliate by defecting, they are also willing to return to cooperation in later rounds. Nowak said:

The rival strategy, by comparison, is all about putting yourself first.

In addition to shedding light on how cooperation might evolve in a society, Nowak believes the study offers an instructive example of how to foster cooperation among individuals. Nowak explained that:

Provided by: Harvard University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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