Does Turning the Other Cheek Make You a Chump?

By Bill Bonner on August 9, 2017

A few years ago, we took a vague and amateurish interest in game theory; it seemed to confirm our prejudices about the way the world worked.

To make a long story short, in the 1950s, the RAND Corporation began working on games in which simple decision-making rules were tested against one another. Assuming the players were rational (which humans may or may not be)… and assuming that complex decision-making rules can be reduced to simple formulae (if A does X, B should do Y)… the idea was to model human behavior.

These tests, as simple as they were, had vast implications. Ethics, religion, politics, human relations, business, mathematics, war – everything was involved… or seemed to be. Should you do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you? Or should you do it to him first, good and hard? A couple of decades later, Robert Axelrod, a professor at the University of Michigan, ran a series of computer games. He invited participants to submit computer programs in which they would act and react with other players, earning points depending on how it went.

Axelrod’s work is described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation, which has become a classic of the genre. Richard Dawkins, who wrote the introduction to the 2006 re-edition, said it was so important, it should replace Gideons’ Bible in hotel rooms.

Cooperate or Defect?

Societies work because people cooperate with each another, even if they are unaware of it and have no particular interest in those they are cooperating with. This is what Adam Smith describes as an “invisible hand” guiding people to do things that will benefit themselves and thereby – unintentionally – others.

But how do people cooperate? When? Why? Those were the questions Professor Axelrod set out to answer.

His game setup was a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine two men arrested on suspicion of burglary. Taken to different rooms for questioning, each faces a decision: Say nothing… and take the consequences, or rat out the other suspect in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself? If both keep their mouths shut (cooperation), the cops may not be able to make a good case. The two may get off. But neither knows what the other will do. If either one goes along with the police (defection), bargaining for leniency in return for turning “state’s evidence,” the other is left holding the bag.

The computer programs submitted for the game tried various combinations of cooperation and defection, earning points more or less in line with the real rewards and punishments the suspects described above might face. Some programs favored defection. Some favored cooperation. But the one that won the game – that is, the one that got the most favorable outcome most of the time – was sent in by Anatol Rapoport of the University of Toronto. Called “Tit for Tat,” it was a very simple program, comprising of just four lines of code, beginning with a cooperative move… and remaining cooperative until the other player defected. Then it defected, too. Tit for tat.

Since this program caused one player to do the same as the other, the results were even. Each player got three points. Had he defected, on the other hand, he would have gotten five points. But defection sets in motion the “tat” response, in which each player only gets one point. A defection then causes further defections – distrust begets more distrust – with further losses.

The players learned from the first competition that it did not pay to defect first. The winners were “nice.” They cooperated unless and until their opponent defected. The competition was run again after all the participants had a chance to study the results and the winning strategies. The new entries came from computer hobbyists, gamers, theorists, and so forth from all over the world, reflecting a number of different academic disciplines. Included among them was one 10-year-old boy, evidently a computer prodigy.

The contestants had learned from the first tournament that being nice paid off. The entries tended to be nicer the second time around, with a “generous” version of Tit for Tat that forgave previous defections more readily.

But once again, the winner was Anatol Rapoport, who merely dusted off his original Tit for Tat program and sent it back. This time, the results were signaled all over the world… and people thought they felt the earth move beneath their feet. (So did we, by the way…)

The Golden Rule

Here was computer-simulated, mathematical proof of the Golden Rule. Well, almost.

Robert Axelrod himself disputed this. As you get to the end of his book, you wonder if he understood his own discovery. The question comes up from several particulars, but the “Golden Rule” is the worst of them:

“In the context of the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” he writes, “the Golden Rule would seem to imply that you should always cooperate, since cooperation is what you want from the other player. This interpretation suggests that the best strategy from the point of view of morality is the strategy of unconditional cooperation rather than Tit for Tat.

“The problem with this view is that turning the other cheek provides an incentive for the other player to exploit you. Unconditional cooperation can not only hurt you, but also other innocent bystanders with whom the successful exploiters will interact later.”

Letting people get away with something spoils them, he goes on to say. But Jesus didn’t worry about it. His instruction was to love not just friends, but enemies, too. Matthew 5:43–45:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…

As for those who smite you, you are supposed to turn the other cheek. Luke 6:29:

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.

Not once, not twice, but 70 times 7. Matthew 18:22:
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Don’t Be a Chump

But Axelrod insists that if you are always nice to people – even after they betray you – you won’t win the Tit for Tat game. And to the extent that the game mirrors real life, you’ll be taken for a chump.

We have met people who were always nice. As near as we could tell, they lived as well as and were as successful as anyone. And they were happier.

Of course, one of the major differences between Axelrod’s games and real life is that in real life, you don’t have to continue playing with every Tom, Dick, and Harry who comes along. So even though you always forgive… and always turn the other cheek… you don’t necessarily continue playing the game with the jerk.

Second, the Golden Rule is not a guide to winning Axelrod’s game. It is more than a strategy. It’s moral instruction. Like the rule against murder, it is not meant to give you a leg up on the competition. It is meant to get you into Heaven, where God keeps His own scorecard.

Third, Mr. Axelrod has simply goofed. The Golden Rule tells you to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It does not say you should always turn the other cheek or let yourself be exploited. If it is correct that “unconditional cooperation can not only hurt you, but it can hurt other innocent bystanders,” what moron would want you to do it unto him? No, he’d want you to treat him in a way that was good for him.

“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” goes the saying. There may be an equivalent. “Friends don’t let themselves be exploited by friends.” Instead, they want Tit for Tat… with forgiveness. They want to be treated fairly, not obsequiously.

Finally, though the game models behavior between individuals, and thus illustrates rules and strategies that the two traders evolve, it is not clear that the same or similar phenomena happen in a group… where the rules of human behavior evolve even further. It may be close to the real thing but not exactly the same.

As Karl Sigmund and Martin Nowak – two evolutionary theorists – put it, “Being close means not being there.”


Bill Bonner
Poitou, France
August 9, 2017