The Golden Rule in the Wild

In the previous post, we discussed the Prisoner’s Dilemma and saw how a simple strategy called Tit-for-Tat enforced the Golden Rule and won a very interesting contest. But does Tit-for-Tat always come out on top? The most confounding thing about the strategy is that it can never win – at best, it can only tie other strategies. Its success came from avoiding the bloody battles that other more deceptive strategies suffered.

The major criticism of Axelrod’s contest is its artificiality. In real life, some may say, you don’t get to encounter everyone, interact with them, and then have a tally run at the end to determine just how you did. Perhaps more deceptive strategies would do better in a more “natural” environment where losing doesn’t mean you get another chance at another opponent, but that your failures cause you to simply die off.

Artificial Nature

So now let’s look at the same game, with the same scoring system, only this time there’s a twist. Assume that this contest takes place in some sort of ecosystem that can only support a certain number of organisms, and they must fight among each other for the right to reproduce. There will be many different organisms, and they will all be members of a certain species, or specific strategy. We can then construct an artificial world where these strategies can battle it out in a manner that seems to reflect the real world a bit better.

In order to determine supremacy, we’ll play a certain number of rounds of the game, called a generation. At the end of the generation, the scores are tallied for each strategy, and a new generation of strategies is produced – with a twist. Higher scoring strategies will produce more organisms representing them in the next generation, while lower scoring strategies will produce less. Repeat this for many generations, observe the trends, and we can see how these strategies do as part of a population that can grow and shrink, rather than a single strategy that lives forever.

So let’s look at an example. Suppose we have a population that consists of the following simple strategies:

Initial
Population
Strategy Description
60% ALL-C Honest to a fault, this strategy always cooperates.
20% RAND The lucky dunce, this strategy defects or cooperates at random.
10% Tit-for-Tat This strategy mimics the previous move of the other player, every time.
10% ALL-D The bad boy of the bunch, this strategy always defects.

 

So what will happen? Was Tit-for-Tat’s dominance a result of the structure of the contest, or is it hardier than some might think? A graph of the changing populations over 50 generations may be seen below.

It’s a hard world to start. ALL-C immediately starts being decimated by the deception of ALL-D and RAND who start surging ahead, while Tit-for-Tat barely hangs on. ALL-D’s relentless deception allows it to quickly take the lead, and it starts knocking off its former partner in crime, RAND. Tit-for-Tat remains on the ropes, barely keeping its population around 10% as ALL-C and RAND are quickly eliminated around it.

And then something very interesting happens. ALL-D runs out of easy targets, and turns to the only opponents left – Tit-for-Tat and itself. Tit-for-Tat begins a slow climb as ALL-D begins to eat itself fighting over scraps. Slowly, steadily, Tit-for-Tat maintains its numbers by simply getting along with itself while allowing ALL-D to destroy each other. By 25 generations it’s all over – the easy resources exhausted, ALL-D was unable to adapt to the new environment and Tit-for-Tat takes over.

This illustrates a very important concept – that of an evolutionarily stable strategy. ALL-D was well on its way to winning, but left itself open to invasion by constant infighting. ALL-C initially had the highest population but was quickly eaten away by more deceptive strategies. Tit-for-Tat on the other hand was able to get along with itself, and defended itself against outside invaders that did not cooperate in turn. An evolutionarily stable strategy is something that can persist in this manner – once a critical mass of players start following it, it cannot be easily invaded or exploited by other strategies, including itself.

I Can’t Hear You

But there’s one critical weakness to Tit-for-Tat. We’re all aware of feuds that have gone on for ages, both sides viciously attacking the other in retaliation for the last affront, neither one precisely able to tell outsiders when it all started. And if we look at the strategies each use in a simplistic sense, it seems that they’re using Tit-for-Tat precisely. So how did it go so horribly wrong?

It went wrong because Tit-for-Tat has a horrible weakness – its memory is only one move long. If two Tit-for-Tat strategies somehow get stuck in a death spiral of defecting against each other, there’s no allowance in the strategy to realize this foolishness, and be the first to forgive. But how could this happen? Tit-for-Tat is never the first to defect after all, so why are both Tit-for-Tat strategies continually defecting?

The answer is that great force of nature, noise. A message read the wrong way, a shout misheard over the wind, an error in interpretation – all can be the impetus for this first initial defection. No matter that it was pointless and incorrect, the strategy has changed. While Tit-for-Tat’s greatest strength is that it never defects first, its greatest weakness is that it never forgives first either.

All of these simulations we’ve seen so far do not include noise, and it can have a catastrophic effect on the effectiveness of Tit-for-Tat. Its success was built on the strategy of never fighting among itself and allowing other deceptive strategies to destroy themselves by doing the same – but with noise, this advantage becomes a fatal weakness as Tit-for-Tat’s inability to be taken advantage of is turned against itself.

So what does a simulation including noise look like? You can see one below, and it contains an additional mystery strategy, Pavlov. Pavlov is very similar to Tit-for-Tat but slightly different – it forgives far more easily.

We see a similar pattern to our previous simulation. ALL-D has an initial population spike as it knocks off the easy targets, but Tit-for-Tat and Pavlov slowly climb to supremacy with ALL-D eventually eating scraps. But the influence of noise causes Tit-for-Tat to fight among itself, and Pavlov begins what previously seemed impossible – to begin to win against Tit-for-Tat.

Puppy Love

So what is Pavlov and why does it work better in a noisy environment like the real world? Well, Ivan Pavlov was the man who discovered classical conditioning. You probably remember him as the guy who fed dogs while ringing a bell, and who then just rang the bell – and discovered that the dogs salivated expecting food.

The strategy is simple – if you win, keep doing it. If you lose, change your approach. Pavlov will always cooperate with ALL-C and Tit-for-Tat. If it plays ALL-D however, it will hopefully cooperate, lose, get angry about it and defect, lose again, switch back to cooperation, and so on. Like a tiny puppy or the suitor of a crazy girlfriend, it can’t really decide what it wants to do, but it’s going to do it’s damndest to try to succeed anyways. It manages to prevent the death spiral of two Tit-for-Tat strategies continually misunderstanding each other by obeying a very simple rule – if it hurts, stop doing it. While it may be slightly more vulnerable to deceptive strategies, it never gets stuck in these self-destructive loops of behavior.

So there’s a lesson here – life is noisy, and people will never get everything correct all the time. Tit-for-Tat works very well for a wide variety of situations, but has a critical weakness where neither player in a conflict is willing or able to forgive. So the next time you’re in a situation like that, step back, use your head, and switch strategies – it’s what this little puppy would want you to do, anyways.