TIT FOR TAT: SOME DOLPHIN-LIKE TIPS ON DEALING WITH THE PLANET’S ‘MOST DISHONEST SPECIES’

When you are using Tit for Tat as a strategy for dealing with people, you always cooperate on the first move. After that, you respond in kind. If your counterpart in an interaction cooperates in the next move or round, then you cooperate too. And hopefully, ever after.

But if the other party defects, you immediately deliver a calculated punishment of some kind as a signal that there is no free punch in interactions where you are involved. Then if the other party resumes cooperation, you forgive and forget and do what you can to get all parties to continue cooperating. Defection leads to defection. Cooperation leads to cooperation.

Excitement over Tit for Tat streaked through academic game theory research circles and out into the general discussion about how to handle mean people at roughly the same time—in the late Twentieth Century—that the dolphin mindset was being energized in more and more people. (Remember that game theory is a kind of analysis frequently used by academicians and other researchers to study human behavior, chiefly by studying the strategies people choose for dealing with each other.) Personally, your blog writer is loath to view this tandem development as coincidence. Tit for Tat as a way of inviting cooperation rather than simply striking a blow for justice is just the kind of idea whose value and utility you would expect dolphinthinkers to grasp faster than many others.

Many researchers grew interested in Tit for Tat during their studies of what in game theory is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If you aren’t familiar with Tit for Tat and Prisoner’s Dilemma, you can read up on the subject here. As you’ll note, if you do spend a little time reading the article at the other end of my link, you’ll find that numerous critics insist that Tit for Tat isn’t as valuable or dependable as a strategy for handling conflict and unfairness as it has been made out to be. But even its critics usually agree that it puts the spotlight on some very important decision-making choices.

One of Tit for Tat’s most outspoken admirers is Jonathan Wallace. He is a Harvard Law graduate and former software company executive who continues to write on ethical issues in his retirement in Amagansett, NY. Wallace once explained:

I am a cooperative person—I find a kind of chemical high in good teamwork—and for years it was my unexamined strategy to continue extending cooperation far beyond the point at which it should have been apparent there would be no reciprocity. . . . I always cooperated . . . because I was a naïve optimist. I always believed that if I cooperated long enough, even unilaterally, the other player would come to trust me, and see the value of cooperation. What I refused to see is what the prisoner’s dilemma teaches: anyone who plays the “All Cooperate” strategy is a sucker, and [provides an incentive to] the other to defect on every move. I now believe that the lesson of the prisoner’s dilemma is that a robust ethic succeeds where a weak one fails. Be fair, be strong, reward cooperation and punish defection, and you will have nothing to regret.

I happen to agree pretty much with Wallace, with whom I’ve corresponded on the subject.

‘THE MORNING AFTER’ TEST AND OTHER TIT FOR TAT VARIATIONS
And yet Tit for Tat doesn’t work with everyone every time and indeed with many parties much at all. Here are things to think about when you are thinking of retaliating:

• Consider how your retaliation may impact “innocents” if they are present when you act (for example, delivering strongly worded grievances in the presence of children).

• Try to identify a way of retaliating that stops short of the risk of permanently damaging a relationship (for example, can you leave your defector room to save face or a route back into the relationship if he/she proves to be conciliatory?)

• Be alert to possible ways your defector may counter-retaliate and prejudge as best you can your vulnerabilities to them (for example, if you sue, what is the likelihood that the defector will also sue you?).

• Use “the morning after” test. How important and effective is the act of retaliation you have in mind going to appear to you tomorrow?

• Is there a way to retaliate that essentially moves matters back to “zero,” or where they were when the defection occurred (for example, if it is possible to do so, what if you demanded that the defector restore things to where they were before?).

• Apply the “shadow of the future” rule. The more you’re likely to need someone’s cooperation in the future, the more important it is to do what you can to keep your retaliation from closing that door.

• What are others going to consider appropriate in the circumstances involved? (If others know about it, a retaliation that is appropriate usually enhances your reputation in the circles you move in. A retaliation that doesn’t “fit the crime” can do just the opposite.)

• If the defection has damaged or poses a threat to the community-at-large, then you may want to get others involved in the retaliation (lone voices speaking up in favor of “the commons” can end up being more lonely still if no one else rallies to the cause).

Political scientist Ken Binmore (who is the author of the article I furnished the link to above) argues that Tit for Tat works best when aimed at persons who have grown up within middle class insider (or establishment) groups. In such groups, says Binmore, you quickly learn that reciprocating cooperation is the only way to go or else soon you’ll be an outsider yourself. Then he adds,

Nature has not brought the same sweetness and light . . . to the world at large. The outsiders who lurk in dark alleys with rape and mayhem in their hearts are neither nice nor forgiving. Nor do sharks only cruise in murky waters. They also swim in brightly lit boardrooms and patrol the corridors of power. Such upper-crust sharks show beautiful teeth as they prey on our bank accounts and raid the pension funds of elderly widows. [We] would be the fools they take us for if we returned the smiles with which they try to convince us that they are nice people like ourselves.

So if you can’t depend on Tit for Tat to work with the sharkthinkers you encounter, what do you do?

Learn to spot the sharkthinkers early. Then use extreme caution. In business, insist on good, enforceable contracts. Watch your back. Use good lawyers. Get the best information you possibly can at all times. Be cautious during all the times following when the sharkthinker cooperates; it is quite likely that they cooperated last time only because they needed you or because you held a winning hand that time. Anytime they demonstrate no intention of being nice, make every effort to get out of the pool or at least remain beyond the range of their marauding jaws and unforgiving teeth.

GIVING WHAT YOU GET—WATCHFULLY, STRATEGICALLY, REALISTICALLY
Our actual design as humans brings many good things but it also brings with it the cruel and egocentric capacity to be the cause of others’ suffering and needs or to be indifferent to them. Our genes—our selfish genes—make us capable of becoming skilled, calculated liars, not to mention self-promoters and social climbers. We are preset to deceive ourselves grandly, in part so as to make us more effective at deceiving others. “We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking,” observes Robert Wright in his provokingly thoughtful book, The Moral Animal.

Mix in a sharkthinker or two, and the world becomes a very different and often difficult place. All the more reason to be the most astute, skillful and well-informed Tit for Tat player that you can be.

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