The biological explanation for cooperation

Cooperation is neither rational not fair but it works! In a webstream from the Royal Society Professor Martin Nowak of Harvard University explains "How cooperation evolves in biology and life?"


To watch a recording of the webstream

Professor Nowak addresses the topic using evolutionary game theory supported by experimental observations of different biological systems.

What does it mean for bioteams?

Selfishness does not work in long run

As a member of a team you choose how you will behave.

Rationally speaking the best strategy is actually not to cooperate - you will always do better in the short-term if you act in pure self-interest.

However, over the longer term, the other team members will start to retaliate against you and everyone, you included, starts to lose out.

Naiveity fails too

You could instead try "unconditional cooperation" - however all the evidence shows you will inevitably be exploited over the long-run.

But Tit for Tat is good

It turns out that the best overall strategy for cooperation is "Tit-for-Tat" (TFT).

TFT starts cooperatively but if the other person behaves non-cooperatively you do likewise but then immediately forgive and go back to cooperating.

Win-Stay, Lose-Shift is even better

However in the real world TFT has one very big weakness. If a mistake happens and an action is wrongly taken or even perceived as non-cooperative then the other person will retaliate.

Thus a single mistake in TFT can start a whole spiral of retaliation and counter-retaliation which wipes out the benefits of cooperation.

A better overall cooperation strategy in an environment where mistakes can be made is "Win-Stay, Lose-Shift" (WSLS).

WSLS means that if what you are doing is working then continue to do it but if is not working then immediately change it. (Nowak points out that WSLS also has the benefit (?) of allowing you to exploit "unconditional cooperators" aka "suckers").

Professor Nowak discusses how different cooperation stategies evolve and compete with each other within a population or a team.

For example a "cluster" of Tit for Tat players will grow and eventually convert other non-cooperative players to TFT.

Interestingly the research and experimental evidence in biology shows that if more than three quarters (actually 74%) of a population are using non-cooperative strategies then the team is beyond cooperation and is destined to stay in destructive behaviour and its consequences. (In human biology this is what a disease like cancer looks like from the viewpoint of "cooperation").

Summing it up the bottom line for effective team cooperation seems to be this:

  • In any team each player needs to choose their cooperation strategy carefully

  • In the long run cooperation works out best for everybody but for it to "take" it needs to be carefully incubated

  • Different cooperation strategies are appropriate at different stages of the team

  • Those team members who adopt either a totally selfish or an overly altruistic strategy will eventually turn out to be losers individually and bring damage to their teams collectively

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