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The Evolution of Cooperation

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The Evolution of Cooperation

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Refuse to cooperate and win big in the short run; cooperate and win smaller, but for a longer time. Where’s your win-win?

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable


Every so often a book comes along that is so groundbreaking it changes the popular worldview. This book, written in 1984 by Robert Axelrod, is just such a seminal work, an original analysis that changed the way experts view cooperation. Its ramifications apply to individuals, organizations, countries and even nonthinking – but nevertheless cooperative – biological life forms, such as bacteria. Axelrod based his book on the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic game created in 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher of the Rand Corporation. Canadian mathematician Albert W. Tucker added the prison sentence payoffs and gave the game its colorful name. Players have two choices: cooperation or betrayal. Axelrod organized two repeating Prisoner’s Dilemma tournaments played by computer programs devised by game theorists, scientists and other experts. His analysis of the tournaments’ results confirmed that cooperation is always a better long-term strategy than betrayal and, thus, evolution has favored it. This book, based on that analysis, has become a true classic. getAbstract suggests that anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of cooperation should start with this pivotal study.


The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Consider cooperation in a few different forms. If you are in a long-term relationship with another person, does it make the most sense in terms of your personal goals to cooperate with that individual? Do you gain any advantage by showing kindness to someone who never reciprocates? What could your business gain by working with another company if it was soon going to go bankrupt? How should your country react to an overt hostile action by an enemy nation? Can your country deal with – or manipulate – this enemy so that it will cooperate? A helpful way to portray and answer such questions is to use an iterated (repeating) “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

The original conundrum is: The police capture two criminals and separately offer them a deal. The men are not allowed to confer. If one informs against the other and confesses, he will be released from prison, and the other will get a 10-year prison term. If they both remain silent, they each will get a minor, six-month term. If both inform against the other, they each get a two-year term. The dilemma is, if both inform, they each gain less than if they remain silent. In game theory, a Prisoner’s Dilemma again...

About the Author

Political scientist Robert Axelrod is a former MacArthur fellow. His interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation has been cited in more than 5,000 articles. His current research interests include complexity theory and international security.

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    M. S. 6 years ago
    Funny that I naturally acted according to Tit for Tat
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    G. N. 1 decade ago
    It is interesting to notice through this work of art that gaming can be perceived as a strategic approach to building character.