One of the foundations of my political belief system is game theory, and in particular the findings from games like the Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma involving evolutionarily stable strategies and cooperation vs. (destructive) competition. Accordingly, I follow developments in that area with great interest, and today there’s some news about a game which provided some intriguing results.

The researchers were able to divide their subjects very cleanly into co-operators, free-riders and reciprocators, based on how many tokens they contributed to the pool, and how they reacted to the collective contributions of others. Of 84 participants, 81 fell unambiguously into one of the three categories. Having established who was who, they then created â??bespokeâ? games, to test whether people changed strategy. They did not. Dr Kurban and Dr Houser were thus able to predict the outcomes of these games quite reliably. And the three strategies did, indeed, have the same average pay-offs to the individuals who played themâ??though only 13% were co-operators, 20% free-riders and 63% reciprocators.

What this means, once you cut through some of the jargon, is that 13% of the players persistently tried to create mutual benefit while 20% tried persistently to benefit at others’ expense. That’s a slightly disheartening commentary on human nature, but potentially more significant is the fact that the outcomes did not encourage either one to change. The cooperators did not see the free-riders doing better, and the free-riders did not see the cooperators doing better. Unfortunately, while the abstract is available online, the full text isn’t (or at least not yet) so it’s not clear whether the players actually had access to information about other players’ performance, so perhaps the result is meaningless. If they could see how others were doing and still didn’t change, that would mean that the system Kurzban and Houser studied is an example of one in which the question of whether to cooperate or compete does not have a single unambiguous answer. Maybe the players realized that at some level, and that’s why 63% chose an in-between strategy.