Listening to a back edition of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast “Game Theory & the Infinite Game”, it struck me that a co-operative is, by design, an attempt to collectively escape the prisoner’s dilemma.
To recap the parameters of the ‘game’, two people are caught red-handed for a crime. They are going to serve a year’s jail-time for this. But they are wanted for a bigger crime too. So they are each offered a way out of jail-time, rat on your partner for the bigger crime and you will go free but your partner will get 50 years. The trouble is that if they both sing, then they will both get 5 years.
The expectation is that the rational selfish response will be to rat on the other. In practice, humans have demonstrated a systemic bias to co-operate – we seem to understand that the pursuit of single-minded self-interest can lead to a bad outcome for all.
So now I have added The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod to my reading list (here for the abridged version). This book reports on a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament where he invited game theory experts to submit programs that would be paired off against each other to see which did best over repeated interactions.
“Amazingly enough, the winner was the simplest of all candidates submitted. This was a strategy of simple reciprocity which cooperates on the first move and then does whatever the other player did on the previous move.”
He called it the Tit-for-Tat strategy.
By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful:
Nice – Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice, that is, it will not defect before its opponent does.
Retaliating – A successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate to avoid being exploited by others..
Forgiving – Though players will retaliate, a successful strategy will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge.
Non-envious – The best strategies did not strive to score more than the opponent.
Whether the players trust each other or not is less important in the long run than whether the conditions are ripe for them to build a stable pattern of cooperation with each other. The successful strategy learns through trial-and-error that it is better to co-operate than not.
Where once we had red phones, we now have red buttons. The imagery of nuclear negotiation has morphed to reflect the times. When deterrence is based on mutually assured destruction, the need for direct negotiation to avoid misconstrued emoticons is paramount. But with North Korea the destruction isn’t assumed to be evenly shared – hence the bigger button – though perhaps the better image is a battery of buttons (or is the collective noun a ‘minefield’?).
Just how the US imagines it can prosecute regime change is the realm of Monte Carlo simulations. We can be sure that they have their plans, and that they are unlikely to include nuclear weapons – except as a retaliatory contingency. So what can we learn from negotiating nuclear-style?
Power asymmetry isn’t all it cracked up to be – Can the US really sustain an atomic explosion on its landmass? Can the US really justify total annihilation of the North in response? These are the implied positions – neither seem particularly sustainable. The implication is that bargaining from a position of relative strength doesn’t help, if the ramifications for any action using your strength are likely to be poor. There are no good nuclear wars.
You go first – in a gunfight, it’s the fastest draw that wins. It doesn’t work that way when both sides are missing body parts when the dust settles. The incentive is to avoid action regardless of your relative strengths. In these circumstances, the US has little leverage to force the hand of North Korea to abandon its program as it is caught in a ‘you-move-first’ bind.
How to make a credible threat – notwithstanding the above, no one wants to cross a crazy man. It’s the reason ‘white with anger’ is so much scarier than the everyday red-faced variety. In the game of bluster and bad behaviour, President Trump has demonstrated an expertise that none of his recent forebears could match. He is a better actor than Ronald Reagan and has none of the restraint or class of Obama. The thinking behind escalation strategy is to automate the launch process beyond a trigger point – midnight on the Doomsday clock. Trump’s crazy eyes and small hands are all designed to blur his fingers on that trigger.
Where’s the escape hatch – from a North Korean dictator perspective, there doesn’t seem to be an option that leaves me alive – let alone saving face. Given my demonstrated disregard for the people of my country, is it really likely that I’m going to get altruistic at the very last moment? What I need is a way out – short of being relocated in a witness protection program. Does the North become a vassal of China? At least that way, the nuclear codes join a bigger library.
Coalitions still win – which leads to the real problem with the current US strategy. Coalitions win conflict. Remember the invasion of Iraq, there was a whole sham thing about weapons of mass destruction? This time there can be no doubt about this. So why isn’t there a mass movement to de-arm?
Wouldn’t it be grand if our x-ray vision enabled us to separate the liars from the trustworthy? Being able to tell whether the used car salesman is really selling this car cheap or whether the shop assistant did inadvertently add that extra item on your bill. Or at work, being able to trust a colleague who seems charming enough but may just be screwing whatever they can out of you?
Lying is a deceptively complex concept. As we all create our own realities on the fly, the idea that my reality is not the same as yours is built into the system. We can disagree about what just happened and be entirely consistent with our own internal radar. This lends itself to gradations of truth.
The idea of a white lie plays on the need to protect someone from something. We lie in their best interests. Following this logic, the lies that we worry about are those that are designed to favour someone else over us.
Perhaps this opaqueness is why ‘thou shalt not lie’ did not make the top 10 commandments.
Lying is not a natural act. The sociopaths amongst us may be better at it, but it remains a challenge even for the most self-deceptive. Firstly, you must rearrange the facts to fit with the evidence. This is not always easy hence the saying that a liar will get caught in their own web.
Secondly, there is an element of guilt. We’re social creatures who like to roll with the herd. Our emotional response to breaking with the rules is to feel bad. Like all emotions, guilt is likely to motivate the liar to behave in certain ways to be consistent with the way they feel. Perhaps they will compensate for their actions, by acting in some other altruistic way.
So how can you tell if someone is lying? Here are some techniques from the professionals.
1) Pose a credibility question – this was a favourite tactic of a friend who was a stock analyst. He would start interviews with pretty straight-forward questions to build trust and relax his quarry. Then as he began to ratchet up the complexity of the questions, he would slip one in where he knew the answer – and that the interviewee would be expected to know too. A wrong answer here is a strong tell that things are not as they seem.
2) Deny, deflect, delay – we don’t like lying as a rule. It requires effort even for those that have limited emotional empathy, as they need to construct an alternate reality that still fits with the evidence. For this reason, the preferred first course of action is to try to not answer the question. So a politician may suggest that this question needs to be considered by some committee process, or they may suggest that is something that they could not have knowledge of. If someone is being evasive with their responses, the chances are that they are avoiding the truth.
3) Body language – while our words may say one thing, our movements can often say another. We often unconsciously register if someone’s body language is out of sync with their words. In fact, it’s been said that over 90% of communication is non-verbal. People who are lying will often try to create distance between themselves and the question – physically pushing back to create extra space. They may also close themselves – folding arms, legs or turning to one side – rather than meeting your gaze or opening their posture. This is not an exact science – some of us are nervous around people at the best of times. So it is relative, which is why detectives will try to gather a baseline behavior before applying the polygraph test.