Nice Guys Finish First (But Never Beat Anybody)


Everywhere we look we can find conflict in the world.  Nuclear threats, civil wars and international trade conflicts come to mind on a geopolitical scale, but we also see it in our day-to-day lives.  It can apply to your stand-off with your roommate over who is going to be the first to scrub the bathroom or your relationship with your coworkers, spouse or another member of your family.

In all of these cases, objectively, it seems that both sides would be much better off if they could just find a way to cooperate.  And, in fact, they would.  However, each party is averse to being the one to cave first, at risk of being ‘the sucker’, even if it means a worse overall outcome for everyone.   In this way, we end up not cooperating even when it is in our mutual benefit to do so.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

“The Prisoner’s Dilemma”,  is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory. I recently listened to a great episode of the NPR podcast Planet Money, in which they featured Robert Axelrod, a career mediator and political scientist who eventually became a Professor at the University of Michigan during the height of the Cold War.  For this reason, he took a particular interest in this experiment that has roots in the 1950s.

Inspired by his computer Chess program at the time, Bob was able – rather early on – to identify the  power of computers to conduct simulations of these scenarios.  Many iterations can be conducted, which allows analyses on the data to determine the likelihood of various possible outcomes of the game.

The classic example, as introduced by Albert W. Tucker when formalizing the game, is as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

This matrix give a visual description of the scenario and all its possible outcomes:

Prisoner's D Matrix.png

(source: Wikipedia)

Essentially, the only way for either Prisoner to get what they really want – freedom – is to do something immoral and to hope to cost another man of equal innocence and guilt their freedom.  In this version, where there are no possible consequences to either player or their reputation beyond the game itself, the self-interested, rational outcome is for each party to betray each other, because choosing to betray – whether your opponent does or not –  is the only way to definitely avoid the longest sentence, or worst outcome.  That is, it is the only way to definitely avoid being the sucker.

We would rather do the ‘wrong’ thing to ensure we have the same sentence as the other Prisoner than do the ‘right’ thing and risk being the only one to receive a sentence – the longest possible sentence at that.

In Axelrod’s extended version, the game is played repeatedly where the ‘Prisoners’ are effectively able to penalize or reward each other for previous decisions.  Recognizing all the many strategies that the “Prisoners” could employ in this scenario, Bob reached out to other researchers who had an interest in the topic, and asked them to define various strategies they had recognized in their own work and then tried to translate it into the computer program he was designing to run his simulations.

Here are some of the 14 strategies that emerged:

  • Play nice – always do the right thing (stay silent) even if it means negative consequences for yourself (Maximum sentence=3 years.  Minimum sentence = 0 years).
  • Play mean – always rat out your counterpart in order to free yourself, possibly putting them away for something they didn’t do without you or at least minimizing the maximum sentence you will receive  (Maximum sentence=2 years.  Minimum sentence = 0 years).
  • Look ahead – consider the choices made by the opponent in previous iterations, and looked ahead to determine the ‘best’ possible outcome based n the previous results.
  • Tranquilizer – ‘play nice’ for a large part of the game, effectively lulling its opponent into seeing it as passive before starting to betray very suddenly further on in the game.
  • Grim Trigger – cooperate until betrayed against, then betray opponent always.  I see this as sort of the bully of the schoolyard, whose strategy is to scare the opponent into cooperating.
  • Tit-for-Tat – stays silent on the first move and then simply returns the action that the opponent had previously given it in all subsequent moves.  If it was defected against last time, it will defect against its opponent this time.

With this, Bob was able to match various strategies head-to-head, over and over, many many thousands of times, in order to see which is most successful in the long run.  It was essentially a grand Battle Royale Tournament on an old-school computer between all the different strategies.

So what happened?

Keep it Simple.

In the first tournament, as Bob puts it, “The simplest of all the strategies is the one that did best.”  That is, “Tit-for-Tat” – you start out ‘nice’ and then base all subsequent actions on the other Prisoner’s actions in the previous round.

Endlessly skeptical and curious, however, Bob sent in more requests for strategies.  This time, he put in ads in computer hobbyist magazines and ended up with 63 ‘competitors’ looking to take on “Tit-for-Tat”.

None were successful.

So, how?  Why?

It’s Not About Beating the Other.

In the first iteration, the strategy assumes the best of its opponent, starts ‘nice’*.  But, if provoked, it will retaliate, as if to send the message that cooperation is best in the long run.  It also doesn’t try to ever beat its opponent.  In any one round, the best it can do is tie, but in the long run it ends up better off overall by surviving and persisting, losing relatively few matches along the way. That is, it wins by never beating its opponent.  Success is based on the strategy’s ability to illicit cooperation.

However, there is a bit of a problem with Tit-for-Tat in the real world, particularly when the stakes are high.  Such as, say, the escalation of nuclear threats.  It only takes one “Tat”, so to speak, to set off a chain of events that could, at least in theory, end mankind and the world as we know it.  In this scenario, there are no more chances for “Tit-for-Tat”  to redeem itself and demonstrate its penchant for cooperation when cooperated with.   The players are never given the opportunity to clear the misunderstanding before it is too late.  And nobody wants  global annihilation, right?

So, Bob made a small tweak to the model, which he called “Generous Tit-for-Tat”, in which the model stayed the same except that occasionally it responded to betrayal with another ‘nice’ move, turning the other cheek and reducing the chance of a misunderstanding escalating into full-blown annihilation.

Communication Makes All the Difference

Although Tit-for-Tat is the most successful strategy in the classic version of the game, a team from Southampton University in England  introduced a new strategy at the 20th-anniversary iterated prisoner’s dilemma competition, which proved to be more successful, which relied on collusion between programs to achieve the highest number of points for a single program.  However, this strategy relies on circumventing rules about the prisoner’s dilemma in that there is no communication allowed between the two players, which the Southampton programs arguably did with their opening “ten move dance” to recognize one another.

This further demonstrates just how valuable communication can be in shifting the balance of the game.   And in a world much noisier than these tidy little computer simulations, everyone’s perception of the same events have the potential to be very different.  It is important to communicate with each other clearly and openly in order to ensure that we are on the same page and working towards the same common goal.  Without that, we may win as individuals, but we will never get anywhere.

Be Nice. 

Bob mentioned that the ‘nice’ strategies generally did quite well overall.  In a study dubbe Project Aristotle, Google found that their teams that were the most successful shared a few common characteristics.  First, on the best teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion. Also, members tended to have high ‘average social sensitivity’ – another way of saying empathy or the ability to deduce how others are feeling.  “eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”  The researchers called this, collectively, Psychological Safety.  The more safe you each member of the group felt psychologically, the more likely they were to succeed as a group in general.  And this was the number one predictor of success, by a long shot.

So, it may just be that the best strategy for us all to employ in order to achieve cooperation is not to treat others as we wish to be treated, but rather to assume the best of people and then treat them as they treat us, while leaving some space to occasionally turn the other cheek.  I would suggest that when it comes to interpersonal interactions, it may be best to turn the other cheek when we are able to recognize that a person’s actions towards us in the moment are due to extenuating circumstances and may be emotional in nature, but not reflective of that person’s intentions or overall demeanor.

Let Go.

It’s not about winning.  It’s not about beating anybody.  The only person worth comparing yourself to is yourself yesterday.  It’s about lifting others up while doing your best to be a better you, not being better than.  Whether in personal finance, relationships, business, travel and adventure, sports, art or spirituality, it’s all an internal journey to do commit yourself to remaining focused on the processes rather than the outcomes.

And then,  simply let go.



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