Tit-for-Tat

 

In the late 70’s,  just when computers were developed, Professor Robert Axelrod invited programmers around the world to take part in a tournament between computer programs. Axelrod wanted to explore witch game’s strategy was best suited to handle moral conflicts. He’s idea was to make different strategies compete in a Moral-dilemma Tournament. The rules were simple. The score in each round depended on the opponent´s strategy. All strategies met in pairs and they played 200 rounds in each match. The strategies could choose to try to win over the opponent, or to cooperate.

matrix-Axelrod-en

The winning strategy accumulated the most points overall throughout the tournament. It was the simplest strategy Tit-for-Tat, made by Anatol Rapoport. Tit-for-Tat cooperates in the first round, and then do the same thing as the other player did in the previous round. If the opponent cooperated, Tit-for-Tat cooperated in the next move. If the opponent was trying to win, so did Tit-for-Tat in the next move. We have much to learn from Tit-for-Tat.

Jealousy is self-destructive and prevents people from being rational. Tit-for-Tat is not seeking to win over the opponents. In fact, Tit-for-Tat never defeated an opponent in the tournament, at best it got the same points. But Tit-for-Tat won the total by consistently organizing a strong second place with different partners. Axelrod sums it up that Tit-for-Tat is not jealous, the strategy won by promoting the common interest rather than by competing.

Tit-for-Tat must be provoked for not cooperating. The basic idea is that an individual should not attempt to gain impunity. One can get far by being nice, but it can also lead to the getting scammed. To win in the long run, it is necessary to be consistent. When the other player does not cooperate, Tit-for-Tat must take revenge. The same is true about forgiveness – the strategy returns to be kind as fast as the other player does.

Excessive revenge leads to a power struggle that has negative consequences for both players. Power struggle is the weakness of Tit-for-Tat. If two Tit-for-Tat strategies are starting to compete the struggle may go on forever. One of the most important lesson from Axelrod’s tournament is that mutual retaliation is hell on earth. A spiral of violence must be avoided at all costs.

After the success for the program Tit-for-Tat Professor Axelrod tried to teach his students to compete successfully with each other in playing the same game repeatedly. He gave the students clear instructions and said that the goal is that everyone should get as good results as possible. “It does not matter if someone gets more points, as long as everyone gathers as much points as possible,” said the professor. But the instructions did not work. Sooner or later, someone tried to win to get ahead, or to just see what happens. This made the other students angry, whereupon the opponent retaliated and the game degenerated into a power struggle.

Axelrod pays tribute to the program Tit-for-Tat – aka reciprocity or the ancient morality group egoism – a morality with historical roots. Before we started farming we lived more than 100.000 years as hunter-gatherers in small groups in Africa. Members of the group helped each other to collect food, hunt and defend against enemies. Group egoism tells us to stay together in the group and fight the common external enemies. The moral principle of group egoism is that you should treat others as they treat you. Axelrod’s study teaches us the importance of cooperation, but the most important lesson from it is about how to design the rules for fair human behavior.

In the 50’s the idea that the ideologies are dead was launched. Welfare is more important than ideology, the sociologist’s thought. Welfare became the guiding principle in politics and the political parties became increasingly similar. When ideology was put on the heap of history, so the evolutionarily related group egoism came back into politics. It is not acceptable to be any kind of egoist, so now this morality is named reciprocity instead. The problem is that this morality fits for a group of 20-100 individuals and not for big cities. Reciprocity is based on that you can recognize people you met before, otherwise you do not know who to be friendly to or who to take revenge on.

The rules determines which behavior is to favor. The rules in the Electoral Democracy is based on competition between different parties. The parties’ goal is to grow and increase their influence. A way to increase the influence is to cooperate and form an alliance and try to get more than 50% of the votes. As an alliance cannot grow without the other alliance decreases, so the alliances work against each other. Elected officials see as their responsibility to give their voters as much influence as possible. This leads to the majority’s dictatorship, and when the power changes so the new winning alliance tends to destroy what the old alliance have built up. Since politics is about solving moral dilemmas, Axelrod’s study is of the utmost importance, and it shows that a political system based on competition leads to the worst possible outcome in the long term.

Reciprocity is a successful principle in business, sports and science. In all these areas reciprocity yields success. But without fair rules reciprocity wouldn’t work at all. The rules are determining the success of Tit-for-Tat. The tournament won by Tit-for-Tat was Robert Axelrod specific rules, and he chose the rules that made it valuable to cooperate. If the rules had been different, so would the outcome. If the strategy that lost the match was out, then Tit-for-Tat would have no chance. All games have rules to follow, otherwise there will be chaos. To determine the rules and laws of society is the main task for politics. If we want to reward the desired behavior we must have an idea of what is the desired behavior. If the rules should be fair, we must use a different morality than reciprocity when we make the rules.

Axelrod argues that reciprocity makes the system self-regulating. “There is no need for a central authority” he writes in the neo-liberal approaches. I do not agree. Tit-for-Tat does not care about the impact on the environment, the participants welfare in the long term, or for other parties who do not participate. Life is no competition and Tit-for-Tat – aka reciprocity – is no morality principle. It also works for terrorists and criminals. If you snitch in the World of Crime, then you die. Cooperation is not always the best moral solution. We should not cooperate with someone who harms others, even if we should gain from this cooperation. The best way to avoid moral conflict in practice is to choose fair partners.

Cooperation also occurs between the questionable players. 200 years ago Adam Smith noted that you can never leave two merchants in the same room – they immediately begin to make plans how to defraud the customers. It is difficult to prevent the parts from dividing the market between themselves or raising the price in a tacit collusion to increase their profits. Therefore public procurement is necessary, and Tit-for-Tat is a bad principle in political legislation. Powerful companies do not hesitate to support their political representatives economically. Transparency is one way to avoid dirty alliances between politics and business. Another way is to empower so many citizens that the companies cannot afford to bribe them all.

2 Responses to “Tit-for-Tat”

  1. Susan Says:

    I heard about this on an NPR program. They mentioned a “Jesus solution” but never told how it fared in the game. Does anyone know?

    • pernor Says:

      Hi Susan. The digital direct democracy movement grows slowly, as all peaceful civil right movements have done before. Despite in countries with great discontent. Like in Italy where the direct democratic party M5S is the biggest party in the Italian parliament.

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