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It's all about me…or is it?

Optimize Blog - August 2, 2013 - 0 comments

From time to time we use the Prisoner’s Dilemma strategy game when working with clients to demonstrate the importance of collaboration in achieving a successful outcome. Historically the thinking has been that putting self first is the key to survival but new research using the Prisoner’s Dilemma model is challenging this theory suggesting that evolution does not favour selfish people.
A team from Michigan State University used the strategy game to show that it pays to be co-operative and to collaborate.
In the model, two suspects are interrogated in separate prison cells and must decide whether or not to inform on each other. Each person is offered a deal for freedom if they inform on the other, putting their opponent in jail for six months. However, this scenario will only be played out if the opponent chooses not to inform.
If both “prisoners” choose to inform (defection) they will both get three months in prison, but if they both stay silent (co-operation) they will both only get a jail term of one month.
The eminent mathematician John Nash showed that the optimum strategy was not to co-operate in the prisoner’s dilemma game. “For many years, people have asked that if he [Nash] is right, then why do we see co-operation in the animal kingdom, in the microbial world and in humans,” said lead author Christoph Adami of the research.
The answer, he goes on to explain, was that communication was not previously taken into account.
“The two prisoners that are interrogated are not allowed to talk to each other. If they did they would make a pact and be free within a month. But if they were not talking to each other, the temptation would be to rat the other out. Being mean can give you an advantage on a short timescale but certainly not in the long run – you would go extinct.”
These latest findings contradict a 2012 study where it was found that selfish people could get ahead of more co-operative partners, which would create a world full of selfish beings. This was dubbed a “mean and selfish” strategy and depended on a participant knowing their opponent’s previous decision and adapting their strategy accordingly.
Crucially, in an evolutionary environment, knowing your opponent’s decision would not be advantageous for long because your opponent would evolve the same recognition mechanism to also know you, Dr Adami explained. This is exactly what his team found, that any advantage from defecting was short-lived. They used a powerful computer model to run hundreds of thousands of games, simulating a simple exchange of actions that took previous communication into account.
Prof Andrew Coleman of Leicester University, UK, said this new work “put a break on over-zealous interpretations” of the previous strategy, which proposed that manipulative, selfish strategies would evolve. “Darwin himself was puzzled about the co-operation you observe in nature. He was particularly struck by social insects,” he explained.
“You might think that natural selection should favour individuals that are exploitative and selfish, but in fact we now know after decades of research that this is an oversimplified view of things.”
So perhaps the message here is that collaboration and communication are key to sustainability – something as leaders we hope we already knew……

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