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 Gรถbbels, 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.

28 thoughts on “Attack, defend, and the nature of cooperation

  1. I will need to think about this for a bit; it seems to make sense, but wants pondering.

    Question, though — do you distinguish between negative and positive gossip? It seems to me that “Friend is in trouble, needs help, pass the word” is just as much gossip as “Acquaintance is in trouble, isn’t it nice that it’s him and not me”.

    • Hmm. Good question.

      It’s natural–and often, perfectly reasonable–to talk about the people and events that are relevant to your life, especially if they’re relevant to your audience as well. I think that there’s more to gossip than just talking about another person; I tend to think of something as being “gossip” when it becomes designed to hurt or to slander, or if the intent of the gossip is to convince the person being spoken to to think poorly of the subject of the gossip, or when it has some element of schadenfreude, or when the subject of the gossip is something you’d be unwilling or unlikely to say directly to the person you’re gossiping about.

  2. I will need to think about this for a bit; it seems to make sense, but wants pondering.

    Question, though — do you distinguish between negative and positive gossip? It seems to me that “Friend is in trouble, needs help, pass the word” is just as much gossip as “Acquaintance is in trouble, isn’t it nice that it’s him and not me”.

  3. Hmm. Good question.

    It’s natural–and often, perfectly reasonable–to talk about the people and events that are relevant to your life, especially if they’re relevant to your audience as well. I think that there’s more to gossip than just talking about another person; I tend to think of something as being “gossip” when it becomes designed to hurt or to slander, or if the intent of the gossip is to convince the person being spoken to to think poorly of the subject of the gossip, or when it has some element of schadenfreude, or when the subject of the gossip is something you’d be unwilling or unlikely to say directly to the person you’re gossiping about.

  4. gossip hurts and it’s incredibly painful to be the person getting the brunt of it. my own opinion is that it’s never inappropriate to speak up to defend yourself and set the record straight. If you can do so without retaliating in kind, that’s the best way to go about it. Not always the most satisfying, but definitely fair.

  5. gossip hurts and it’s incredibly painful to be the person getting the brunt of it. my own opinion is that it’s never inappropriate to speak up to defend yourself and set the record straight. If you can do so without retaliating in kind, that’s the best way to go about it. Not always the most satisfying, but definitely fair.

  6. Giger Tattoo

    I have a bunch of Giger books if you want to look through them for ideas. I tend to like the biomechanoid women better than the aliens but it is, of course, up to you. Also, I highly recommend you look at the artist’s portfolio first to make sure they are competent at fine line and black & gray work.

  7. Giger Tattoo

    I have a bunch of Giger books if you want to look through them for ideas. I tend to like the biomechanoid women better than the aliens but it is, of course, up to you. Also, I highly recommend you look at the artist’s portfolio first to make sure they are competent at fine line and black & gray work.

  8. i, too rely upon game theory for inspiration and counsel when considering strategy and tactics to resolve a myriad of conflicts, not the least of which happen to occur within interpersonal situations. one of the most recent of these issues in my life resulted in this post about game theory and reciprocal altruism.

    btw, here’s the most comprehensive layman’s article on tit-for-tat that i’ve found online

    and, although it’s disappointing in general when i hear about slanderous gossip, i am glad to see that i’m not the only one who feels compelled to stand up and put a stop to it, whenever possible. i would imagine that you also recognize that people on many sides of the issue may become irritated with you for “rocking the boat.” in my experience, it seems that many people in otherwise intelligent communities generally expect to be able to gossip, and may resent those who try and stop them… if they seem to be talking smack about someone, they may actually be attempting to talk about their uncomfortable feelings with others, because they are afraid to speak directly to the person that they are gossiping about? or they may have given up attempting to communicate with the target of their gossip for whatever reason? not that i approve of such behaviour by any means… au contraire! in fact, i have gone to great lengths to attempt to get people to work out their issues with one another directly. q.v. the lj community i created called areopagus… admittedly, that project was dripping with satire, but it was a functional (crude, but effective) solution to a situation in which people had refused to comply when i asked them to speak directly to each other, or stop talking behind each others backs. at first, i tried to excuse their behaviour because of geek social fallacies or relationship triangling… but as more lies and slander piled up, i couldn’t stand it any more, and i attempted to put a stop to group behaviour… for which i have been branded somewhat of a moralist, albeit a relatively liberal one… (constructive critics have suggested that interpersonal problems cannot be settled online, and must be dealt with one-on-one between those who have an issue with one another, with a mediator at first, if necessary).

    i have always been fascinated with societies like the orang asli that have no need for privacy or violence. and i am continually reminded of bucky fuller’s World Game scenario, which clearly shows how, “To make the World work / for 100% of Humanity / In the shortest possible time / Through spontaneous cooperation / Without ecological offense / Or the disadvantage of anyone.” but there are still so many people who have been conned into believing that there is “not enough to go around,” so, in order to survive, they continue to believe that they have to take resources away from others before those resources are taken away from them… and the wheel of greed spins ever faster!

    and although i understand that the conspiracy of greed doesn’t support reciprocally altruistic communities, i am going to continue to seek the company of mutually beneficial relationships that are supportive of one another (open, honest, responsible… safe, sane, consensual… you know the drill…), and if we are fortunate, we may be able to create enough of a network to achieve a Permanent Autonomous Zone?

  9. i, too rely upon game theory for inspiration and counsel when considering strategy and tactics to resolve a myriad of conflicts, not the least of which happen to occur within interpersonal situations. one of the most recent of these issues in my life resulted in this post about game theory and reciprocal altruism.

    btw, here’s the most comprehensive layman’s article on tit-for-tat that i’ve found online

    and, although it’s disappointing in general when i hear about slanderous gossip, i am glad to see that i’m not the only one who feels compelled to stand up and put a stop to it, whenever possible. i would imagine that you also recognize that people on many sides of the issue may become irritated with you for “rocking the boat.” in my experience, it seems that many people in otherwise intelligent communities generally expect to be able to gossip, and may resent those who try and stop them… if they seem to be talking smack about someone, they may actually be attempting to talk about their uncomfortable feelings with others, because they are afraid to speak directly to the person that they are gossiping about? or they may have given up attempting to communicate with the target of their gossip for whatever reason? not that i approve of such behaviour by any means… au contraire! in fact, i have gone to great lengths to attempt to get people to work out their issues with one another directly. q.v. the lj community i created called areopagus… admittedly, that project was dripping with satire, but it was a functional (crude, but effective) solution to a situation in which people had refused to comply when i asked them to speak directly to each other, or stop talking behind each others backs. at first, i tried to excuse their behaviour because of geek social fallacies or relationship triangling… but as more lies and slander piled up, i couldn’t stand it any more, and i attempted to put a stop to group behaviour… for which i have been branded somewhat of a moralist, albeit a relatively liberal one… (constructive critics have suggested that interpersonal problems cannot be settled online, and must be dealt with one-on-one between those who have an issue with one another, with a mediator at first, if necessary).

    i have always been fascinated with societies like the orang asli that have no need for privacy or violence. and i am continually reminded of bucky fuller’s World Game scenario, which clearly shows how, “To make the World work / for 100% of Humanity / In the shortest possible time / Through spontaneous cooperation / Without ecological offense / Or the disadvantage of anyone.” but there are still so many people who have been conned into believing that there is “not enough to go around,” so, in order to survive, they continue to believe that they have to take resources away from others before those resources are taken away from them… and the wheel of greed spins ever faster!

    and although i understand that the conspiracy of greed doesn’t support reciprocally altruistic communities, i am going to continue to seek the company of mutually beneficial relationships that are supportive of one another (open, honest, responsible… safe, sane, consensual… you know the drill…), and if we are fortunate, we may be able to create enough of a network to achieve a Permanent Autonomous Zone?

  10. Interesting reply.

    The link you posted on the tit for tat strategy as it applies to the evolution of cooperative behavior in animals is a fascinating read. Substitute social behavior for animal behavior in the article and I think many of its conclusions still hold up well.

    As far as societies which don’t need privacy and are non-violent are concerned, I thend to think there’s probably an upper limit on the size of such a society, past whihc it can no longer sustain itself. Human beings seem to be wired to form a finite number of close interpersonal connections (which makes sense, as the earliest humans formed societies typically no larger than fifty members or so). When you start building cities with thousands or tens of thousands of inhabitants, much less millions, you’re no longer talking about a single social structure any more, but rather a patchwork of different social structures and societies, some of which overlap, some of which don’t.

  11. Interesting reply.

    The link you posted on the tit for tat strategy as it applies to the evolution of cooperative behavior in animals is a fascinating read. Substitute social behavior for animal behavior in the article and I think many of its conclusions still hold up well.

    As far as societies which don’t need privacy and are non-violent are concerned, I thend to think there’s probably an upper limit on the size of such a society, past whihc it can no longer sustain itself. Human beings seem to be wired to form a finite number of close interpersonal connections (which makes sense, as the earliest humans formed societies typically no larger than fifty members or so). When you start building cities with thousands or tens of thousands of inhabitants, much less millions, you’re no longer talking about a single social structure any more, but rather a patchwork of different social structures and societies, some of which overlap, some of which don’t.

  12. I don’t think you should second-guess yourself on this issue. If I were in your place, I would handle such situations exactly as you have done to date. The gossip may not stop, but the power changes back into your hands when you ignore it – haven’t you noticed it’s happening already?

  13. I don’t think you should second-guess yourself on this issue. If I were in your place, I would handle such situations exactly as you have done to date. The gossip may not stop, but the power changes back into your hands when you ignore it – haven’t you noticed it’s happening already?

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