Axelrod’s Theory of Cooperation

I recently wrote about my mindset towards giving, titled: We Should Tithe More! However, creating organic, bottom-up, “selfless/cooperative” behavior is difficult (without some centralized coordination mechanism for cooperation, e.g. the government). This article explores one way to organically catalyze cooperation.

Applying Theory of Cooperation to Universal Tithing

In Robert Axelrod’s classic book, The Evolution of Cooperation, he outlines his “Theory of Cooperation” as an explanation for why cooperation organically emerges without a centralized institution. Through Prisoner’s Dilemma modeling and biological and social case studies, Axelrod determines 4 characteristics that correlate with success (in a 2-agent repeated game scenario). They are:

  • Start with Cooperation (don’t start with defection)
  • Retaliate Quickly (if they defect, you should defect)
  • Forgive Quickly (after retaliation, forgive them by cooperating again)
  • Be Consistent (clarity allows others to cooperate with you)

We can apply this to Universal Tithing:

  • Start with Cooperation: I start by assuming that I’ll be tithing to help others (and that they’ll tithe as well). (I don’t create “excuses” to not tithe like, “others don’t do it, so I don’t do it.”)
  • Retaliate Quickly: This is difficult to map into the tithing system. What counts as defection? (Especially when we’re trying to say “tithe an amount of money to the charities you’d like. Do what feels right to you!”) Should a defection be “not tithing enough given a certain income”? Or “not thinking enough about Effective Altruist impact when you give”? Or maybe “continuing to hold a zero-sum/scarcity-driven mindset”? And then if they “defect” (by not giving or whatever), then how can one “retaliate”? I was never really giving them anything in the 1st place, so how could I “punish” them? Given those (very much still open) questions, my instinct is to have a rule similar to this: “if you make over $40,000 and don’t tithe at least 5% to charity, then I will be much less likely to work with you or help you”. It’s still a bit awkward. Thoughts?
  • Forgive Quickly: Pretty simple given my proposed rule above. If someone starts to give, then I’d be happy to collaborate with / help them!
  • Be Consistent: Have a clear “rule set” that others know / can learn. The cooperate side of this is super clear: tithe 20%. (Or tithe n%.) But as you see with my proposed “defection” rule above, the non-cooperate side of this is much more difficult to define (and therefore, to make consistent).

Additional thoughts:

  • It is difficult for cooperative strategies to “invade” an existing ecosystem of defectors (like we have now). (i.e. It’s difficult to beat capitalism at its own game.) However, it’s possible to get a “foothold” by creating a “sub-niche”, cooperating there, then slowly expanding that niche. This is happening with some geographic communities, and also with other “New Social Movements” like Effective Altruism, Free Software, RadicalXChange, etc.
  • I’m not sure if this 4-step pattern applies to games of n players.
  • Here is a google doc of my book highlights from Evolution of Cooperation

Disclaimers: This interview is not investment advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect my employer :). I own less than $5000 of any given cryptocurrency