Cooperation (1) : tit-for-tat

This paper is the first of a series of three articles originally published in French on cooperation and its issues in everyday life. In the present article, we will reconsider cooperation theory as brilliantly studied by
Robert Axelrod . Among other achievements, Robert Axelrod is the author of the book The Evolution of Cooperation.

The book reviews various strategies of interaction between members of a group. Among these strategies, there is the model called “tit-for-tat”. The principle of tit-for-tat cooperation consists in interacting in a cooperative mode with a partner as long as he/she does the same. At the first defection, the model suggests reacting immediately and with the same intensity; then, at the next turn, re-proposing cooperation. In any event, with this model, one never attacks first, one reacts to the first aggression and then starts again in a cooperative mode.

In his book, Robert Axelrod showed that this strategy was effective and could be essential, even in absence of friendship or love, on the sole strength of interests well understood by both parties. This model brings a long-term value and lasting benefit to human groups.

Axelrod describes and analyzes tournaments organized in the 1980s between artificial agents (small software), each having its own strategy. Some always cooperated, whatever the other’s behavior. To some extent, even when they were hit, they turned the other cheek; others always cooperated to a certain point where they deserted, “betraying” their partners; still others had a random behavior, etc. In the end, the model known as tit-for-tat proved to be one of the most robust.

As human beings, we can choose this strategy consciously, without being programmed. But is it so simple? Of course not. Next week, we will start surveying limits which hinder us in our willingness to cooperate.

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