Recently, some things have come to light that I have found personally disappointing. A few people have behaved in a self-centred way, and it puts me in an awkward situation.
If given a choice, I always try to be kind, open, honest, respectful, and cooperative. However, sometimes some people don’t play by these same rules, and the more open and honest you are, the more they can use this information against you.
These experiences have led to me doubting myself. I wonder if I am too trusting, as some of my friends say. Other friends tell me that the only way to respond is by playing the game and putting my own needs first.
What should we do if someone is being unkind and only considering their needs irrespective of the consequences these actions have on us?
Game theory looks at the best rational approach to take in a strategic interaction between two people or groups of people. There are many different games, including cooperative games, where an official can enforce the rules and consequences, and zero-sum games, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.
One of the most famous examples of a game is the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’:
Imagine that you are a member of a criminal gang and that you have been arrested alongside one of your gang associates. You are in separate rooms at the police station, and you have no way of communicating with your associate. The Police tell you that they have insufficient evidence to get either of you on a big charge, but enough to get both of you on a smaller offence. So the Police give you and the other prisoner one of two options:
- You can betray your associate by testifying that they were the one who committed the crime, or
- You can co-operate with your associate by remaining silent and refusing to testify.
The possible outcomes are:
A. If you both remain silent and co-operate with each other against the Police, you both only get one year in prison.
B. If you both try to betray each other by agreeing to testify, you both get two years in prison.
C. If they betray you, but you’ve tried to co-operate, they get to walk free, and you get three years in prison.
D. If they try to co-operate by remaining silent, but you betray them and agree to testify, you get to walk free while they have to go to prison for three years.
The rational approach is not to co-operate with your associate, because at worst, you will get two years in prison (B), and at best, you will serve no prison time (D). This is compared to the worst outcome of three years in prison (C) if you remain silent, and the best result is one year in jail (A). Therefore, not betraying your associate and co-operating will only lead to a worse outcome, even if you know that your associate will co-operate with 100% certainty.
Therefore, it is not always rational to try to co-operate with someone who could potentially take advantage of you, and positively not sound if you know that they are deliberately trying to take advantage of you.
What About Long-term Strategies?
If two people play multiple games of Prisoner’s Dilemma and remember what the other player did previously, does it make it more desirable to co-operate rather than betray the other person? This is more reflective of how most relationships are in real life, whether with family, friends, co-workers, bosses, or intimate relationships. We may win more in one situation, but at what cost? This iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is sometimes known as the ‘Peace-War game’.
In 1984, Robert Axelrod organised a tournament where participants chose their strategies in an extended version of the Peace-War game, with 2000 trials. He found that greedy approaches to the game actually didn’t fare too well and resulted in more years spent in prison by the end of the game.
One of the most straightforward strategies was also the most effective, and this was tit-for-tat. The tit-for-tat strategy aims to always co-operate in the first trial and then do exactly what your opponent did on the previous trial for your next move. This way, you punish a betrayal with a quick betrayal back and reward co-operation with ongoing co-operation. Sometimes (in 1–5% of the trials), it is good to co-operate once even after your opponent betrays you, but generally, the most effective method is still tit-for-tat, which is interesting to know.
After the tournament ended, Axelrod studied the data and identified four main conditions for a successful strategy when negotiating with other people:
- We must be nice. This means that we should never defect or cheat before the other person does, even if we only want the best for ourselves.
- We must retaliate quickly and at least 95% of the time if people try to defect against or cheat us. It’s not good to be a blind optimist or always co-operate no matter what the other person does. This only leads to us being taken advantage of by greedy people.
- We must be forgiving and get back to trying to co-operate once we see that the other person is trying to co-operate reasonably again.
- We must not be envious and try to beat our opponent or score more than them. Creating a win-win scenario is ideal if possible, even if it means giving up some points by co-operating when you could defect.
What Relevance Does This Have For Real Life?
It may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that screwing others over is the best way to get ahead in life. Or to not put ourselves out there so that we don’t get taken advantage of. In reality, this would only be the best approach in a world where every other person tries to take advantage of everyone else every chance they can. This is not the case in any society on our planet as far as I know, so never trusting people and always assuming the worst from others is not the way to go.
|Untrustworthy||Get hurt||Don’t get hurt|
|Trustworthy||More connection||Less connection|
By looking at the table above, the best outcome is to try and trust reliable individuals (and co-operate with them) and not trust or co-operate with individuals who are not. The worst results are being hurt by putting our trust in those we shouldn’t or not letting in or co-operating with others that we really could have.
Maybe I am a little too trusting. I assume that other people are kind and good people who have good intentions unless I am proven otherwise. This is the position that I will continue to take, even if it means that sometimes I get hurt once I realise that someone is a bit more self-centred or dishonest than I had hoped.
Looking at the four elements of a successful negotiating strategy, I know that I am nice, forgiving and non-envious. However, the lesson that I need to learn is that of swift and appropriate retaliation or enforcing a certain consequence shortly after someone is nasty towards me. This would help deter the other person from trying any more selfish tactics in the future and could put them back on the path towards co-operating and trying to achieve a win-win situation for both of us.
I have thought previously that if I always co-operate, I can be happy with the person I am. However, sometimes being firm and assertive and standing up for ourselves in the face of unkind and selfish behaviour is the far better and more self-respecting approach to take.
I hope this article has encouraged you to not give up on trying to trust or co-operate with others. I also hope it will encourage you to stand up for yourself if someone tries to take advantage of you.
Dr Damon Ashworth