Cooperation as a strategy

Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist, concludes The Evolution of Cooperation with the following winning strategy:

What I find very interesting in these games of conditional reciprocity, direct and indirect reciprocity, we can make the point that winning strategies have the following three properties:  they must be generous, hopeful and forgiving.

Generous in the following sense: if I have a new interaction, now I realize (and this is I think where most people go wrong) that this is not a game where it’s either the other person or me who is winning. Most of our interactions are not like a tennis game in the US Open where one person loses and one person goes to the next round. Most of our interactions are more like let us share the pie and I’m happy to get 49 percent, but the pie is not destroyed. I’m willing to make a deal, and sometimes I accept less than 50 percent. The worst outcome would be to have no deal at all. So in that sense, generous means I never try to get more than the other person.  Tit-for-tat never wins in any single encounter; neither does Generous Tit-for-tat.

Hopeful is that if there is a new person coming, I start with cooperation. My first move has to be cooperation. If a strategy starts with defection, it’s not a winning strategy.

And forgiving, in the sense that if the other person makes a mistake, there must be a mechanism to get over this and to reestablish cooperation.

This strategy aligns with my thoughts on how cooperation differs from collaboration. To be generous, hopeful, and forgiving  will in the long run make for stronger networks and communities. It works in nature, as Nowak shows.


2 Responses to “Cooperation as a strategy”

  1. Harold Jarche

    Nowak also makes an interesting point:

    “There is one thing that I have learned in my studies of cooperation over the last 20 years: there is no equilibrium. There is never a stable equilibrium. Cooperation is always being destroyed and has to be rebuilt. How much time you spend on average in a cooperative state depends on how quickly you can rebuild it. The most important aspect is really how quickly you can get away from the Always defect again.”

    If we are trying to encourage cooperative behaviours in organizations or communities of practice, we need to note that it is always a work in progress.


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