Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On the importance of being nice

share Since I wrote Why would I want to share? and Sharing is a selfish act, I've been thinking about this topic. Practically, this has consisted of reading Robert Axelrod's excellent book, The Evolution of Cooperation. This has influenced my thinking significantly, and I have come to believe a thorough understanding of the prisoner's dilemma is key to social behavior. Fortunately, it is possible to summarize the book in three simple rules:
  1. In a classical prisoner's dilemma (i.e. a one-time interaction), always defect.
  2. In an iterated prisoner's dilemma (i.e. repeated interactions by the same partners), use Tit-For-Tat (respond in kind).
  3. Be nice, i.e. do not defect on the first move. After that, use Tit-For-Tat. The more interactions there will be, the more important it is to be nice.
In the book, Axelrod provides abundant evidence to support these rules and examples of where they can be seen in operation in the real world. So how would we apply these rules to:
  • Teaching students: (Iterated) - be nice but firm, sticks are needed as well as carrots.
  • Open notebook science: It's not clear to me whether this is iterated or not, which makes a big difference.
  • Online identities: (Iterated) - be nice but stand your ground on principles.
You can fill in more cases for yourself - but only if you've read the book, which I strongly recommend.