Cooperation Against All Odds

by Marie Collison, December 18, 2022

Would you ever throw your best friend under the bus? Probably not. What if the reward was to have your entire education paid for? What if you were being threatened with indefinite jail time if you did not do so? These questions address a fascinating concept often reviewed in the fields of game theory and sociology: the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Here is an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: pretend you and a friend of yours just robbed a bank. Not a close friend, but someone you may have shared a class with at some point. You got caught and are now waiting in separate interrogation rooms. You are unable to communicate with one another, nor have you spoken about any sort of plan if you two were to get caught. After some time, an officer walks into the room holding a sheet of paper. The officer tells you that if you sign the paper, which blames the entire incident on your friend, you will be set free and won’t have to serve any jail time. In turn, your friend will be condemned to 10 years in prison. Alternatively, if you don’t sign the paper and your friend does, you will serve 10 years in prison and they won’t serve any time. If neither of you sign the paper, you will each serve 2 years. If you BOTH sign the paper, you each are sentenced to 6 years (see below for a diagram). What would you do?

The logical collective answer would be for neither of you to sign the paper, right? You would still serve 2 years in jail, but the total time spent in jail between the two of you is only 4 years as opposed to 10 years (if only one of you signs) or 12 years (if you both sign). However, on an individual level, the choice to sign the paper is an obvious one. If you sign the paper and your friend doesn’t, you won’t have to serve any time. The problem resides in the fact that your friend’s best move is to also sign the paper. The payoff of signing the paper (at best, 2 years and at worst 6 years) is much more appealing compared to the consequences of not signing the paper (at best 0 but at worst 10 years) on both ends. This means the most likely outcome will be the both of you signing the papers and each serving 6 years. Ideally, the two of you would each refuse to sign the papers and would each serve 2 years. This would in turn be the collectively most optimal choice. In the one-time play, each person’s interests are in complete conflict, which makes cooperation extremely difficult to achieve. 

At the heart of this problem lies the human nature towards both altruism and selfishness. If you were to play the game once, the outcome of 6 years would be unfortunate but better than 10 years. However, if you begin to play the game over and over again against the same person, the matter of history affects your future choices. Therein lies the problem: how do you optimize your strategy to “win” against any other person that you face? This is when a person’s decisions towards either altruism or selfishness matter and affects future interactions. 

In the 1980’s, Robert Axelrod, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan sent out an invitation to a special tournament. This invitation was sent out to a group of very prominent game theorists, people’s whose entire lives were dedicated to studying puzzles like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Axelrod’s only instruction: submit a computer program that would win at the iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma game. To clarify, winning meant coming out of the game with the fewest years of prison. Each strategy would play every single other strategy and the winning strategy would be the one to result in the fewest years. 

There were numerous strategies of varying complexities. Simple strategies included always defecting (betraying your friend) or never signing (cooperating together and not giving the other up). Another strategy submitted was random (cooperating 50% of the time and defecting 50% of the time). All of the strategies were complete at the time of submission, so no changes could be made to adapt to different opponents. In the end, only one strategy reigned supreme: tit-for-tat. This strategy even won again when Axelrod repeated the tournament with newly submitted strategies.

The tit-for-tat strategy is fairly simple. It consists of two components:

  1. Begin by cooperating.
  2. Match the decision your opponent made in the previous round until the match is finished.

For example, if the match starts with your opponent cooperating, you would in turn cooperate in the next round. If your opponent then defects in round two when you cooperate, you would then defect in round three. 

Against simple strategies, it is fairly easy to analyze how the tit-for-tat strategy holds up. When against an “always cooperate” strategy, the entire match is rainbows and smiles as the two easily cooperate the whole time. Against the random strategy, both the tit-for-tat and the opponent will be 50/50 on cooperating/defecting. Against the “always defect” strategy, the tit-for-tat strategy only loses in the first round before both strategies begin to turn on one another for the rest of the match. So why does this strategy work and what does this mean in the grand scheme of the world?

The strategy works because the strategy can never be taken advantage of for multiple rounds as in the “always cooperate” version, but it will also not miss out on the benefits of cooperation. What this tournament outlines may not be the “best” strategy, as it will stoop to the level of a strategy such as “always defect;” however, it outlines possibly the most optimal strategy to come out on top. It also outlines some tips on how to promote cooperation:

  1. Teach reciprocity: when there are more tit-for-tat strategies in play, the success of other strategies diminishes.
  2. Insist on no more than equity: the tit-for-tat strategy doesn’t expect more than equal action and does not perform more than equal action.
  3. Respond quickly to provocation, but be forgiving: when the opponent defects, the tit-for-tat strategy immediately defects in the next turn. Don’t do more than match your opponent’s last action even if your opponent defects multiple times. 
  4. Don’t be envious: do not try to “beat” your opponent, simply match their previous decision. 
  5. Begin as open as possible: like in the tit-for-tat strategy, begin by opening yourself up to cooperation, making it possible to have the most ideal outcome rather than beginning on a sour note.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes beyond a simple mind game: it teaches us that cooperation can be difficult to achieve, even in situations where cooperation is clearly the optimal solution. It is a guide, not a perfect one, but a well tested one, on how individual rationality can lead to collective irrationality. Although this may seem like one giant philosophical problem that may not seem directly relevant, the Prisoner’s Dilemma extends well beyond theory and into the reality of human interaction. 

Works Cited

Axelrod’s Tournament. Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

Shah, Rina. “Robert Axelrod: The Prisoner’s Dilemma Simulation.” Shortform

Books, 6 Jan. 2021, Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

‌Tit For Tat. 17 Sept. 2019,

Individualism Impacted From Literary Studies

by Jamie Budhram, October 28, 2022

As I sit under the trees on a New York City park bench, I am reminded of The Zoo Story, in which two men from different walks of life relate to each other’s struggles that are rooted in their developed society. I feel connected to the idea of the unknown creating loneliness. As I watch people from all different cultures and backgrounds pass by, I realize I know nothing about each person, nor do they know me. Yet, that is the way we begin to understand the unknown: by placing a persona onto others. Based on our ignorance, it’s clear that as citizens we decide who is important to us and who isn’t, which is determined by our actions. 

However, I would argue it is not entirely our ignorance, but rather the shallowness of our individualism. Individualism is defined as a social or cultural tradition or personal outlook that emphasizes the individual and his or her rights, independence, and relationships with other individuals (“APA Dictionary of Psychology”). Emphasizing individual rights can be seen as shallowness, as being shallow means lacking emotion and consideration, even though it ultimately strengthens individual purpose and ambition. Without individualism, a person defines their contributions to society, as well as themselves, from an open-minded perspective. 

To fully answer the question of the factors that impact our individualism, I sit and watch people walk by. Society affects our individualism because it pertains to not only yourself but to unknown people as well. W.E.B. Du Bois argues about the actions of the South where Black Americans were to never be leaders, but should instead work to give to others, and for those who ever strive to be leaders, they should be supported by their communities (Du Bois 62-63). I see those who live for themselves and those who live for others, with everyone having different beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that affect the way they perceive themselves. Watching a white man dressed in a suit and designer jewelry creates a feeling of inferiority that either triggers motivations for success or dispirited thoughts of failure. Now I see a person or similar race and it seems to be an inspiration. Is it not human nature to be utterly selfish? Then why do I feel a sense of empowerment from seeing someone from my background succeeding in something? This phenomenon exists within society, where the feeling of being inspired by someone similar to you leads to believing that the prospect of success is real for those like you. Du Bois discusses the feeling of disempowerment from seeing success in others because it seems that if others have so much success, then there is barely any success “left” for other individuals, and that is why we feel disempowered (Du Bois 101-103). Society lives in a way in which it functions to empower the individual, but it is the way we perceive each other that makes it difficult to wake up the next morning and challenge our abilities, since some people have so much more success than others. 

I get up from the bench and decide to walk in the crowd of people, but it feels fast and uneasy as if I am no longer walking but rather observing. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, describes such a feeling in his book, How to Walk, making me question how uneasiness affects the way I feel about the places I enter. As I walk into Stephen A. Schwarzman Library with the year of establishment, 1967, in very visible and bright writing, I envision what it looked like for the people who designed and built this place with each step. After viewing all the men, women, and children passing by the library, I start to question how they would describe their experiences here. Ultimately, everything I have written is from a male’s perspective, which Virginia Woolf discusses with her understanding of the way history is taught (Woolf 119-120). Everything I have learned and what I am currently writing creates an image and thought that only I can truly understand. Even by describing the intricate designs on the ceiling or the fine details of the statues, it would still not be enough to fully immerse the reader the way that a firsthand experience would. This is because history, as it is written with every moment in time, tries to replicate the experience, but does so unsuccessfully. It has been said for centuries by figures such as Winston Churchill, George Santayana, and Edmund Burke that those who do not acknowledge history are doomed to repeat it, and thus there is a stigma that history should never be repeated. However, we push people to learn from their mistakes, so why treat history differently? The reason why past experiences are never replicated seems to be that we shun history. This shunning begs the question: is it possible that the truth we shun about history isn’t so true? We all want what we have learned to be the truth, but what if it is not? What if something taught for centuries starts crumbling down when a new “truth” arises? That’s how history wants people stuck; it gives a confirmed answer to everything so others do not question or move away from it. According to the U.S. Historian Henry Glassie, “history is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.” This attitude affects the way we look at the whole world. For instance, America is known for its dark history, yet there is a strong sense of nationalism that disregards what used to exist. Whether it be for a woman, a Black American, or any group of individuals who have been oppressed by America, there is continuous forgetfulness for those who have suffered. There’s no truth in history, only perspective. In Japan, for example, the government does not acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre and the murder of thousands of Chinese citizens by neglecting to include it in their history textbooks. In this case, their perspective– or their truth– exists differently from what others believe, whether it be just or unjust. No one can truly understand unless they have lived through the Massacre. Now when I walk, I understand that I am in control of history, but some may have different perspectives and versions. 

A person’s ancestry affects their present-day self. Growing up Indo-Guyanese in America caused somewhat of an identity crisis within me. We leave a place that was once called home to live in American society and form new habits that revolve around the new culture. In both countries, I am asked where I am from. Where do I truly belong if no one knows where I belong? What is my community? The suffering of my ancestors, those tears and anger, make me who I am today. Yet, grasping this suffering is difficult when it’s presented in front of others. In some way, shape, or form, generational trauma exists within everyone, but it isn’t necessarily addressed or educated about. It is similar to Virginia Woolf discussing lesbian relationships within literature, a drastic change from older literature because they were not as direct about the former taboo topic (Woolf 88-89). In the “Book of the Dead,” dating back to ancient Egyptian society, two men in a homosexual relationship hid their relationship until death. It’s clear that in Egyptian culture, such relations were deemed wrong. This demonstrates how literature takes on the role of educating about change and that every individual has the choice to learn from the literature.

Being able to accept your current individual self is made difficult when faced with the fact that in the past, others could not accept themselves. This psychological concept follows practices taught from generations ago to this very day. For example, an atrocious father can place those same habits he knows onto his children, hurting their future children. It can detrimentally impact families and loved ones, but with change, generational trauma can heal. Racial trauma, for example, is connected to all of this by making people of our era want to fight for our rights more desperately. By affecting the person, it can cause an intense amount of distress, isolating themselves despite the fact that they did nothing wrong, but simply because something could have triggered them to feel that way. The task of improving or healing generational trauma isn’t easy, especially when culture is involved. Asian culture, for example, is filled with ideals of toxic masculinity and emotionless discussion with loved ones. That is why there is a constant need, especially for American immigrants, for some type of therapeutic experience. Cultural issues like toxic masculinity, social judgment, and lack of self-awareness, seek to impact generational trauma, ultimately playing a role in why an individual thinks and acts a certain way. With this in mind, expectations come in, through which our loved ones impact the individual when it comes to learning about who they are currently and who they will become. 

Within families, the word expectation means fate. Du Bois argued that Black Americans had to decide whether their lifestyles were going to be based on representing the Black American community or if they would be based on their personal beliefs and thoughts (Du Bois 3-4). This seems to be the same case today. When talking to my peers, there is a clear consensus that the struggles of our immigrant families widdle down our options to being either a doctor or lawyers. Judgment and comparisons with others scare families, especially when it comes to status or money. It puts ceaseless pressure on an individual, with some regret if they did not fulfill that expectation. This is why I believe families look at it as fate. When an individual fails to meet what is expected of them, they are shunned, or if they go onto separate routes, they are ridiculed for having their own thoughts. This goes back to the idea of whether an individual truly lives for themselves or if they live for the validation of others. This continuous cycle of questioning every decision made on its properness seems never-ending. With peers, it seems as if it’s a race to see who will succeed the highest rather than who will be the happiest. This concept of having something that should be wanted into something that is needed affects every individual simply because they want to live as others do. 

That is why I observe and watch. This shallowness that exists from generational trauma, society, history’s perspective on truth, and family and peers, disrupts the continuation of unpacking our individualism. Observing the people of the world is like watching the stars at night; there are millions of unique ones that we look at. We focus on the constellations that enhance the night sky’s beauty and we envision how bright it is all across the world, and simply look up at what exists now.

Works Cited

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. New York, Johnson Reprint Corp, 1968.

Woolf, Virginia. Room of One’s Own. Rupa & Co, 2022.