Attack, defend, and the nature of cooperation

It’s interesting to be the subject of gossip. Many people gossip; it’s a part of the human condition, and at one point or another in our lives we’ve probably all gossipped and been the subject of gossip. Gossip seems to serve a function of some sort for many people–identity, perhaps (“Ooh, did you hear what so-and-so is doing? Isn’t it great that we’d never do anything like that?”), or an assaugement of guilt (Shakespeare’s King Lear describes himself as “a man more sinned against than sinning,” and it’s often true that a person may gossip about the litany of sins committed against him as a way of denying the sins he has committed).

Gossip is trecherous. It has a slippery way of coming back around on the people who gossip, revealing a bit more about their preconceptions and prejudices than they might perhaps wish. For example, one of the more amusing bits of gossip floating around the aether about me is that I’ve been gossiping myself about a couple of people, specifically by spreading rumors that these people were “kicked out” of a social group to which we all once belonged.

This gossip is interesting for a number of reasons: first, because it came back tome from several people we know in common; second, because the rumor itself is absurd (the social group in question has no cenetralized authority and no mechanism by which anyone can be “kicked out”–it’s not even possible; third, because it stands as an excellent example of the sort of bias which can create communication difficulties of the type I’ve written about before; and fourth, because I know exactly where this gossip came from, who originated it, and why.

There is a philosophy in the Bible, attributed to Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, which says “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” As I get older, I question the wisdom of this approach, at least in the case of gossip. Generally speaking, I have tended not to defend myself when others gossip about me, even in ways that are patently absurd and demonstrably false, as I couldn’t see any compelling reason to counter it; those whose opinions I value know better.

There’s a problem with that approach, though. Joseph Göbbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, put it pretty simply: if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it. (This is the only explanation I can find for people who believe that Republicans favor small government and fiscal responsibility, for instance…but I digress.) By not countering a falsehood stated about you, you give strength and credance to that falsehood.

But I didn’t come here to talk about gossip. I came here to talk about the evolution of cooperation.

One of the puzzles of social anthropology is the evolution of cooperation. Primitive organisms are not cooperative; and a superficial look at the idea of cooperation tends to suggest that cooperation has negative survival value. If one animal shares its food with another, there’s less food available to the first; if resources are scarce, the survival advantage lies with the animal that doesn’t share. Complex, high-order cooperation carries a survival benefit, but how do organisms develop highly complex cooperation if simpler cooperation actually hurts an individual’s chances of survival?

The non-intuitive answer developed out of a branch of mathematics called “game theory,” and specifically from a famous example of a game theory puzzle called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Scientific American sponsored a contest to write a computer program that implemented a strategy for dealing with an iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma problem.

Put simply, a Prisoner’s Dilemma problem is a situation in which two people have a decision to make, and they can either cooperate or act selfishly; there’s a benefit to cooperation, but also a benefit to acting selfishly, and the largest payoff goes to the person who acts selfishly when the other person cooperates. The Scientific American contest challenged programmers to come up with a strategy for dealing with this sort of problem. Each program was pitted against the others for many iterations of the problem, and the programs that gained the most benefit went on to the next round while the programs that failed to gain benefit were ruled out. This simulates a system where, for example, an organism which gains the greatest amount of resources survives, and an organism that can’t obtain enough resources dies.

The prediction was that programs that tended to act selfishly would win, especially when pitted against programs that acted cooperatively; cooperation is a doomed strategy. What actually happened was unexpected and surprising: The most successful strategies were those that cooperated often, and the most successful of those was a simple strategy called “tit for tat,” which has only a couple of rules:

1. On the first round, cooperate.
2. On each successive round, do whatever the opposing program did last time–cooperate if it cooperates, act selfishly if it acts selfishly.

The fact that such a strategy can be successful is surprising because this strategy never gives the program more resources than the opposing program. The Tit for Tat strategy does not create situations where it actsselfishly when the other program cooperates–which is where the greatest gain is.

This has all kinds of implications for social biology; it’s not about getting more resources than all your competitors, just maintaining parity is enough. An organism can succeed simply by keeping up with its competitors–it doesn’t actually have to win. In fact, such an organism will win against organisms that act selfishly without provocation!

Coming around full circle to gossip: The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy might be represented as a Prisoner’s Dilemma “all-C” strategy, in which one cooperates all the time. Problem is, all-C doesn’t work. In the real world, when faced with opponents willing to act selfishly, all-C is a strategy that tends to get its clock cleaned. Jesus’ advice works fine in an environment where everyone else practices either an all-C or a tit-for-tat strategy, not so well in an environment like…oh, this world.

I have come to realize that my own personal strategy for dealing with things like rumors, gossip, and personal attacks is analogous to an all-C strategy; I seek not to answer the gossip, or correct the rumors (however absurd they may be), and I don’t respond to personal attacks at all. This is, I believe, not an effective way to deal with these situations.

What’s interesting is that I already knew that. In other situations, I’ve always been an advocate of speaking out against attack. For example, I’ve always believed that people who are members of a sexual or social or religious minority should speak out when they’re mischaracterized or attacked by others; if a person is gay, and does not speak out against homophobia when he encounters it, he actually assists the homophobe.

So, where does that leave me? I think that, in the future, I will adopt a more “tit-for-tat” approach to rumors and gossip–countering the falsehoods and misinformation people may, for whatever reason, disseminate, without engaging in similar tactics myself. We’ll see how this works.