Refuse to play!

Be warned: this is an off-topic (meaning not photography) text and it is rather long. From time to time, I like to ponder philosophical questions and would actually like to write about such thoughts more often. I hope that some of the ideas are interesting to some of you and hope that I am not boring you. If you make it (or scroll) to the end, you will be "rewarded" with a photograph :-)

Sometimes, interactions with other people are stimulating and enriching my life, while in other situations they are a burden and a reason for many sighs. From time to time, I even find myself in a situation, where I can only loose, irrespective of my decisions and despite my best intentions. I am of course not really writing about a material loss, but rather about loosing energy, time, confidence, or peace of mind.

What is the best strategy to avoid loose-loose situations and to preserve my peace of mind?

Interesting aspects and insight about interactions with friends and strangers are provided by the prisoner's dilemma, which is a particular example of game theory. It is a game for two people who play against each other. Each player has to decide whether she wants to cooperate with or betray her game partner, without knowing the decision of the opponent. If both players cooperate, they earn one point each. If one cooperates, while the second player betrays, the former looses two points, while the latter gains two points. Finally, if both betray each other, they will both loose one point (I made up these numbers - the original example is somewhat more evolved, but this is just to illustrate the essence of the game). If both players behave logically, they will both betray each other and therefore both loose.

The prisoner's dilemma becomes much more interesting, if it is played over and over again. If one player knows that she is playing again soon and if both want to maximize their profit, then it would be best to cooperate. But how can you protect yourself from being betrayed and what strategy favors cooperation and prevents endless cycles of betrayal as retaliation? Robert Axelrod organized a tournament to solve these questions. Participants submitted computer programs that used different strategies to play the prisoner's dilemma against each other. The results are described in a fascinating small book entitled "The evolution of cooperation". Surprisingly, the simplest of all strategies won: tit for tat. The program using the tit for tat strategy started out by cooperating and then repeated what the other player did in the previous round of the game. The three most important aspects of this strategy are the facts that it does not betray before the opponent does (it is a nice strategy), that it punishes the other player for betraying (it is retaliating) and that it can resume cooperating after a betrayal (it is forgiving).

Does this result have any implications for real-life situations? I think yes. Although the prisoner's dilemma is a theoretical game, our everyday interactions with colleagues, friends and even with strangers also involve investments, returns and some kind of strategy, conscious or unconscious, about how to interact with people. In real life, investments and returns are not points, but anything from a smile, to time and effort, a happy or sad feeling, or something more material. Cooperative behavior can be expressed by different acts of kindness and friendliness and by replying and responding to such acts similarly. On the other hand, in everyday life, a betrayal does not have to be a literal betrayal of someone but could also be a betrayal of confidence, trust, respect or decency. Importantly, life is not a series of disconnected, independent prisoner's dilemmas, but rather a sequence of interdependent "games" in a highly interconnected, social environment. Consequently, mutual cooperation may indeed be the most sustainable strategy and it may be wise to review the strategy for our daily prisoner's dilemmas. The important aspects that were identified by the prisoner's dilemma tournament - nice, retaliating and forgiving - seem like a very reasonable starting point for such an assessment.

However, personally, I do not really like to retaliate. I find it exhausting to constantly weight investments and returns in order to prevent being abused. For me, the cost of retaliating is so high that it already feels like a loss (but being constantly betrayed would of course be much more costly). Instead of just accepting being abused, I suggest one little twist and additional thought to the prisoner's dilemma: Retaliate repeated betrayal by refusing to play at all! By not playing, I deprive myself of a potential win, but interactions with repeat betrayers are mostly loosing games anyway. In such instances, if the probability of betrayal and consequential loss are high, not playing is the most beneficial strategy of all!

In the original prisoner's dilemma not playing is not an option, but in everyday life it certainly is. I can choose with whom to interact and whom to ignore. Of course, I do not suggest to stop playing at all. I am a strong advocate of nice, retaliating and forgiving as guiding principles for daily interactions. However, I do not only decide on HOW to interact, but also on whether I engage in an exchange at all. By choosing the games that I am playing, I try to dedicate my energy to cooperative environments and to avoid exhausting and combative people. For me, the best strategy to avoid loose-loose situations is to engage wholeheartedly in cooperative interactions and to try to avoid repeatedly negative interaction.

The conclusion of my thoughts on the prisoner's dilemma is thus that sometimes it is necessary to retaliate and that not playing is a strategy to avoid situations of repeated retaliation.

I wish you a nice weekend!

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A compensation for those who made it all the way to the end of this post: A mountainous light and shadow composition. I was fascinated by illuminated peaks in the back and the foreground, while the valley in between was in the shade. It was a short-lived scene that we observed from the little summit named Il Jalet, which can be reached on a short hike from the Ofenpass, in the Swiss National Park.

2013/02/23 by Florian Freimoser
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