How Cooperation Emerges

I recently finished reading The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod.

As the title indicates this book explores the topic of cooperation, particularly how it can emerge in a decentralized population that seeks individual maximization of self-interest. The book is split into two main sections. The first discusses cooperation through game-theory analysis of  computer tournaments played. This includes the various strategies used, and the ones that enjoyed the most success. The second discusses the implications of the findings from the first section, and real-world applications in the fields of biology, politics, sociology etc. While the first section is somewhat dry and abstract, the second section anchors the concepts and is very applicable and practical.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The analysis of the data from these tournaments reveals four properties which tend to make a decision rule successful: avoidance of unnecessary conflict by cooperating as long as the other player does, provocability, in the face of an uncalled for defection by the other, forgiveness after responding to a provocation, and clarity of behavior so that the other player can adapt to your pattern of action.”

2- “What accounts for TIT FOR TAT’s robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term cooperation.”

3- “Thus cooperation can emerge even in a world of unconditional defection. The development cannot take place if it is tried only by scattered individuals who have no change to interact with each other. But cooperation can emerge from small clusters of discriminating individuals, as long as these individuals have even a small proportion of their interactions with each other.”

4- “The live-and-let-live system that emerged in the bitter trench warfare of World War I demonstrates that friendship is hardly necessary for cooperation based upon reciprocity to get started. Under suitable circumstances, cooperation can develop even between antagonists.”

5- How to Choose Effectively: “The advice takes the form of four simple suggestions for how to do well in a durable iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma: 1) Don’t be envious. 2) Don’t be the first to defect. 3) Reciprocate both cooperation and defection. 4) Don’t be too clever.”

6-“…not being nice may look promising at first, by in the long run it can destroy the very environment it needs for its own success.”

7- “Keeping one’s intentions hidden is useful in a zero-sum game (e.g Chess) where any inefficiency in the other players behavior wil be to your benefit. But in a non-zero-sum setting it does not always pay to be so clever.”

8- “So to promote cooperation through modification of the payoffs…it is only necessary to make the long-term incentive for mutual cooperation greater than the short-term incentive for defection.”

9- “The ability to recognize the other player from past interactions, is necessary to sustain cooperation. Without these abilities, a player could not use any form of reciprocity and hence could not encourage the other to cooperate.”

10- “The ability to recognize defection when it occurs is not the only requirement for successful cooperation to emerge, but it is certainly an important one.”

11- “This kind of stereotyping has two unfortunate consequences…the obvious consequence is that everyone is doing worse than necessary because  mutual cooperation between the groups could have raised everyone’s core…while both groups suffer from lack of mutual cooperation, the members of the minority group suffer more.”

12- “The trick is to set the stringency of the standard high enough to get most of the social benefits of regulation, and not so high as to prevent the evolution of a stable pattern of voluntary compliance from almost all of the companies.”

13- “In an organizational or business setting, the best way to secure this accountability would be to keep track not only of the person’s success in that position, but also the state in which the position was left to the next occupant.”

14- “The core of the problem on how to achieve rewards from cooperation is that trial and error in learning is slow and painful. The conditions may all be favorable for long-run developments, but we may not have the time to wait for blind processes to move us slowly toward mutually rewarding strategies based upon reciprocity. Perhaps if we understand the process better, we can use our foresight to speed up the evolution of cooperation.”


Omar Halabieh

The Evolution of Cooperation

The Evolution of Cooperation


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