One night at school, Messrs. Terry and Tim sneak downstairs to the school pantry and one of them, we know not yet which, steals a packet of biscuits. Naughty, naughty. Very pleased with themselves, they scuttle back up to their dormitory and have a midnight feast.
Suddenly they hear a creak in the floorboards and the light turns on. They’ve been caught! Not only are they in big trouble for talking after lights out, but they will get in double trouble if Mr. Marston can find out who stole the biscuits. The teacher separates the two boys into different rooms and offers each boy a choice. They can either tell tales on the other boy for stealing the biscuits in return for a reduced punishment, or stay silent and trust their partner in crime to do the same.
The potential outcomes are as follows:
Strikes are punishments – the higher the number the worse the punishment.
The odd thing about this setup, commonly known as the prisoner’s dilemma, is that no matter what Terry does, Tim can always guarantee a lesser punishment for himself if he betrays Terry. Thus if both boys are rational and self-interested (a big if), they will both betray each other, even though collectively they would have been better off staying quiet. Quite a conundrum…
The Bad News and The Good News
Last week I had the pleasure of running an afternoon of games and workshops at a summer camp run by Oppidan Education. Walter Kerr and Henry Faber, the founders, had kindly gave me a blank slate – I could teach them whatever I wanted. So what is it that a ten year old most needs to hear in 2017?
Rather a lot it seems. Yet all the most important bits – like how to stop our species from going extinct – don’t seem to be anywhere near the syllabus. And evolution – the most powerful, and powerfully misunderstood, idea of all – has been relegated to a brief distraction from Biology when you get to age fourteen. Worse still is the way it’s been misportrayed as a vicious struggle of all against all; in reality it is the co-operators who end up bringing home the bacon.
This is particularly true of humans. Humans are where we are because language has allowed us to work together in more ways and larger groups than any species before us. If we are to remain where we are we need to take this all the way: either we find a way for our species to work together as a single planetary organism, each of us like a cell living and working in the interests of the whole, or the ecological tragedy of the commons and international war tears us apart. Scientists reckon we have about three years to get our house in order, before the worst happens.
The good news is that all that’s really required to achieve all this is a new story. Nations only exist because we say they exist. They’re collective fictions. If we tell our children a different story, a story about the universality of mankind, then that is the reality that we will create. And we’re good at telling stories. So that’s what I did…
If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the father of co-operation.
I gathered all the boys together in a large indoor horse nursery. Some of them were tall, some small, one was from Turkey called Mehmet, there were two Chinese brothers called Kevin and Kian, one little boy of eight with an American accent called Hector and the rest English with names like Orlando and Batholomew. I decided to shorten that one to Bart.
I related the tragic plight of Terry and Tim, and then put them in pairs and asked them to imagine that they themselves were now in this situation. They would now have to decide whether they would betray or co-operate with their partner. The only difference was that each pair would do this multiple times rather than just one, meaning that the boys would have plenty of chances to retaliate if their partner betrayed them. Each decision to co-operate or betray constitutes one “game”, and each round they would play several games with their partner.
I then gave them each two plastic cups, one with a green dot for co-operation, and another with a red dot for betrayal. I gave them a moment to have a think about their strategy and then on the count of three, asked them to lift up one of their cups so that their partner could see whether they had co-operated or betrayed.
It was beautiful. The whole show played out down to every last line in the textbook. Players who began on the right foot generally maintained trust and kept up the cycle of co-operation. Those who tried to get ahead and thought only of themselves generally drew retaliation from their partners, ending in destructive cycles of betrayal. The two brothers Kevin and Kian who had been paired together by chance, immediately began co-operating with one another and remained that way. Blood is thicker than water. Bart began a campaign of attrition which he was to keep up for the entire game.
After four games, I had the boys switch partners. In order to mimic the uncertainty of life, in which we can never be sure when we might meet someone again, it is crucial that this comes as a surprise: if Terry knows that his next game with Tim is their last, then there is no incentive to co-operate because he knows that Tim won’t have a chance to retaliate. This is why trust tends to break down in large cities; the bigger the city, the less likely it is that we will meet again if I decide to pull a fast one.
As well as changing partners, in round two there was a slight change of rules. This time they would be allowed to confer with their partner before each round.
The brothers, now separated, performed very differently. Kian, who began with betrayal, ended up in a destructive cycle with Matthew, a player who had hardly proved his trustworthy credentials in the first round. Kevin, whether wittingly or not, employed a strategy known as tit for tat; co-operating on the first move, and then copying whatever his partner did on the previous move. This worked relatively well, earning him a better than average score of five strikes for the round. Bart, like the true Machiavellian he is, continued ploughing his steady furrow of betrayal, smiling all the way as the long-suffering Anthony wearily held up green cup after green cup.
On the third round, I did something interesting. On impulse, I flipped the scoreboard round. Now suddenly everyone could see their scores, as well as a detailed history of how their schoolfellows had been playing. To drive home the point, I asked each boy to tell the group whether their partner had been true to their word in round two. If their partner nominated them as honest then I underlined their name in green, and if they had been dishonest then I underlined their name in red. Then came the twist. The honest players would now be allowed to choose their partners for the third round.
Once again I feel that this is an accurate reflection of the dynamics of life. If Terry told on Tim for stealing biscuits, Tim will make damn sure that all their friends find out that Terry is a snitch and not to be included in any shenanigans forthwith. And if Tim were to go on another biscuit raid, you can bet your bottom dollar that Terry is just about the last person in the world with whom he would choose to share his biscuits.
However, rumours are not always to be trusted, and so it is that Kevin, who I feel had led a fairly blameless game up until that point, was tarnished with the red brush of dishonesty by his partner Orlando. Both were therefore denied the chance to select a new partner and remained together for the third round, and since each was annoyed at the other for being hung out to dry in public, a costly snitching match ensued.
On the other hand Mehmet, who had built trust and earned his good reputation, opted to remain with his partner and both had harmonious third rounds. Anthony, I’m glad to say, was repaid for patiently turning his cheek and chose a born-again Hector, leaving Barty and Matthew to slog it out in the playground.
The numbers represent the numbers of strikes each boy receives. Strikes are punishment – the more strikes the worse the punishment.
Because there were an odd number of boys, I asked a member of staff called Ben to sit in as the 14th player with the instruction to employ an Old Testament style strategy of tit-for-tat: on the first move he would co-operate, and thereafter would copy whatever his partner did on the previous move. Tit-for-tat is never the first to betray, responds to any betrayal with a betrayal of its own, but is quick to forgive when its partner co-operates again.
In a famous experiment run in 1984 by Robert Axelrod, tit-for-tat proved the winning strategy out of thousands, and so I was keen to find out if Ben would prove similarly successful. Sadly, in a more-lifelike-than-life twist of fate he misunderstood my instructions and betrayed in the first game when he should have co-operated. This drew a retaliation from his partner which marred an otherwise unblemished record. No doubt, Ben’s position as an authority figure amongst the boys played its part in soliciting co-operation from his subsequent partner Mehmet. But then again Mehmet is just a nice guy…
Most gratifying of all were the responses in our reflections about the games afterwards. The boys talked about the importance of trust, friendship, and the value of a good reputation. I asked them to think of real life situations when the lessons we’d learnt would be relevant. They agreed that having seen how the game played out, they would be more likely to help a friend with his homework, more likely to share a packet of sweets with their friends (Bart disagreed – but then again look how well that strategy worked out), more likely to pick up litter and more likely to give money to a homeless man.
Life is a Game
Varieties of the prisoner’s dilemma crop up not just in the playground, but in the board room, in the savannah, under the sea, at the conference table, indeed in all areas of life. The precise ratios of risks and benefits can change, but the simple structure of the dilemma, where selfishness pays off on a one-off basis, but collectively everyone is better off working together, remains the same.
What this means is that winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life. Take a moment to absorb this.
Imagine: there are two lions hunting wildebeest together. Each lion can choose either to get stuck in, but risk getting kicked, or hang back and hope to steal a meal later. If they both go for it, the chances of injury are reduced, but if they both hang back, neither of them get any lunch.
Or consider two supermarkets aggressively pricing bananas. Easyshop might decide to advertise a fabulous banana bananza in order to attract more consumers. But if Eveneasiershop does the same thing, then there’s no incentive for a consumer to switch supermarkets, and yet both supermarkets lose revenue. However, if they can both work together to price fix bananas (illegal) then they both retain customers without losing any money.
Or two environmentalists considering giving up beef to reduce their carbon emissions. If Lavender gives up, but her friend Skyler keeps eating burgers, then Skyler will benefit from Lavender’s sacrifice, but without having to make her lunch any less tasty. But if Lavender inspires Skyler to give up as well then everyone wins. Of course if both Lavender and Skyler keep eating beef then humans may go extinct.
And so on and so forth.
The Balloon Game
Whilst I felt it important to stress to the boys the precariousness of our ecological situation, the last thing I wanted to do was to leave the little blighters on a downer. Despondency can lead to denial, and this is a major part of the problem.
So I ended with an uplifting exercise to demonstrate how effective we can be when we all pull in the same direction. I gave the boys a bunch of red balloons and bamboo skewers and asked each of them to blow a balloon up and write their name on it. I then asked them to play with their balloons until they were thoroughly mixed up. Then I told them to look for their balloons again. If they found someone else’s balloon they should knock it away. But if they found their own balloon they should pop it.
This took a few minutes as boys ran screaming, knocking balloons about and brandishing their skewers like little jousters. I found myself wondering whether this would have passed a health and safety test, as the sound of cries and the popping of balloons filled the echoey space.
I then asked them to repeat the game with fresh green balloons, except this time, they were to pick up the nearest balloon and give it to the person whose name was on it so that they could pop it.
This time they cleared the room in 20 seconds.
Except Bart, who had somehow managed to insert his skewer all the way through his balloon like a magician with a sword, and then holding it aloft, ran all the way round the horse nursery chased by an angry mob of boys wielding skewers like a village of cannibalistic midgets out for lunch. Well at least they’re working as a team, I thought.
Much has been written about these kinds of games and it is interesting to see how consistently the standard wisdom was born out in the games we played. Remember: winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life, personally and professionally.
Nice guys do finish first
The three players with the highest co-operation percentages, Ben, Mehmet and Tom, finished in the top four places. There is hope after all.
Actions speak louder than words
It became immediately clear that verbal communication was not necessary for co-operation to emerge. Players’ actions speak for them. Indeed when I gave the boys the chance to talk to one another in round two, levels of co-operation actually fell.
Trust, so valuable when built, is easily shattered
Orlando co-operated all the way through the first round, experimented with one betrayal in round two, and ended up shattering his fragile understanding with Kevin, never to be recovered. Contrast this with Mehmet who extended his run of co-operation into round two, building a strong bond of trust with Ben, and ended up coming top.
When we trust someone, it brings out their better nature
Everyone who was chosen as a partner in round three responded to the call with impeccable behaviour. Even Gabriel and Hector, both of whom had been very naughty in round one, were transformed when they were invited to sit at the green table of trust by Anthony and Nuno in round three. Give someone a leg up and they’ll respond with loyalty.
Reputation is everything
Gossip, a phenomenon which gets a bad name, really serves a vital evolutionary function in ensuring that those who only look out for themselves get their just desserts.
Much of human behaviour today is a hangover from a hunter-gatherer way of life. For tens of thousands of years we lived in small tribes in which everyone knew everyone, and gossip was a vital way of ensuring that everyone pulled in the same direction. If you lost the respect of your tribe it was a matter of life and death.
In medieval villages almost everything was exchanged on credit. If you were trusted by the community you were literally rich. Your reputation was your wallet.
The effect may have been diluted somewhat now that we live in large cities and trade on the internet and yet the same patterns of behaviour re-emerge in credit ratings, Air BnB reviews and seller’s feedback on eBay. Reputation can win you a job or lose you a lover. It’s the most valuable currency you have.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
Hector is a nice anomaly to the theory that nice guys finish first. In the first round he was ostensibly not nice, and yet he still managed to come first alongside Mehmet and, but for his misunderstanding in the first game, Ben. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the tag of “trustworthiness” was based only on the boys’ performance in second round, and so Hector’s indiscretions in the first round did little to tarnish his reputation. This is the equivalent of Terry betraying Tim without anyone finding out that it was Terry who did so.
The second reason for Hector’s success was that he was allowed to get away with murder by Martin. The same thing happened with Anthony and Bart, meaning that Anthony came last despite a high percentage of co-operation (86%), whilst Bart managed to scrape in at 8th despite the lowest co-operation percentage (21%) of all the boys.
This would suggest that whilst forgiveness is noble, providing a vital opportunity to break destructive cycles of betrayal, simply letting people walk all over you will cost you dear. Worse still, it allows selfish players to prosper, and this ends up hurting us all when they reach the top of the ladder. This goes a long way towards explaining mankind’s current predicament.