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Competition and Cooperation

Anyone who imagines they can work alone winds up surrounded by nothing but rivals, without companions. The fact is, no one ascends alone, Lance Armstrong.

Does cooperation make any sense or is it just a silly utopian dream? Maybe, we should always seek our own selfish interests, completely disregarding anyone else’s feelings or how our actions might affect them.

There was an experiment that illustrates this problem perfectly, the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Merrill Flood & Melvin Dresher, 1950). There are two thieves who have committed a crime, but not enough incriminating evidence.

The police, completely hopeless, use a technique in which they visit each one separately and both prisoners are offered the following deal:

The prisoner dilemma

The prisoner dilemma

Of course, each prisoner is in solitary confinement, that is, he or she does not have any means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. If you were one of the prisoners, unable to communicate with your fellow accomplice, would you confess?

It is in the interest of each one of them ― in order to minimize their own sentences ― to confess no matter what the other does, but it is in their collective interest to hold out. What seems rational and self-interested from the point of view of one, turns out to be detrimental and then both parties end up far worse off (6 years) than if they had trusted each other, kept silence and gained a joint profit (6 months).

United we stand, divided we fall

United we stand, divided we fall

The ideal strategy is to cooperate. They should each trust their accomplice and deny the crime. They will only both serve a six-month sentence, a remarkably lower period than if they compete and mistrust each other.

When everyone seeks the group’s interest, then we all come out better off than if we only look selfishly to our own self-interest!

Suppose we iterate this game and we remember our previous results. What is the best strategy? In the long term, “tit for tat” ― equivalent retaliation ― has shown to be the most successful. It starts by cooperating with the other party ― kind of a handshake when you meet someone. Then, it replicates the opponent’s previous action. If the opponent was cooperative previously, the player is cooperative. If not, the player responds by punishing him. If the opponent player changes his attitude, this style of play (clear and simple, easily understood by everyone) responds appropriately, they both return to collaborate and obtain the optimal solution.

In other words, a forgiving strategy is the best choice when the other player understands that cooperation is useful for both.

Let’s recall ordinary everyday examples where we can find similar situations:

They may achieve their objectives (child custody, getting as much money and assets as possible, limiting the parenting time of the other, etc), but they will all end up losing in a long, dirty, and destructive war with no winner, just sadness and sorrow among everyone involved. It will turn against them because of the damage done to their offsprings, the impossibility of collaboration in the future, etc.

You can underestimate how traumatic a disruptive divorce is for the children

You can underestimate how traumatic a disruptive divorce is for the children

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