Anyone who has studied game theory specifically or political science in general in the past two decades is bound to have read Robert Axelrod’s seminal work The Evolution of Cooperation. Using computer modeling, Axelrod goes on to demonstrate that cooperation can be fostered over time thanks to organisms/actors having a fear of the shadow of the future; that is to say, if I think I will have to have dealings with you in the future, then I will cooperate with you now with hopes of continued cooperation in the future.
I am, of course, vastly oversimplifying Axelrod’s thesis, but he presented a convincing theory of how long-term benefit could trump short-term gain if the participants had an ongoing rather than one-off relationship. What got me thinking again about Axelrod — and inspiring this post — is that storytellers often contradict Axelrod’s findings by positing the late-in-life or end-of-life change of heart among characters. Consider that literary trope, the archetypal greedy old man (think Ebenezer Scrooge) who takes a turn towards benevolence before death because of the sudden realization that, in passing, he will be remembered only as an evil miser. For him, the shadow of the future is very short, and thus he has a disincentive to cooperate, yet cooperate he does. A similar thing happens in the movie Groundhog Day, when the protagonist Phil changes from a narcissistic misanthrope into a near-humanist when he finds himself stuck in a day that repeats again and again, a situation which, according to The Evolution of Cooperation, should encourage selfish behavior.*
Now are storytellers simply wrong, are these stories outliers outside the bounds of Axelrod’s schema, or is there something else at work here? It might be argued that filmmakers and writers are more sentimental than the real world, and that these change of heart scenarios reflect ideals more than practicality. But there’s something deeper than that — not only will I make choices with an eye towards future cooperation (“We can eat what you like today and then tomorrow we can have what I like”) — but I will also take actions mindful of the fact that they will influence the perception others have of me as a social being. For those around us, the memories born from these perceptions become the sum total of our existence. And to invoke Martin Buber, if we make I-It relationships the focus of our life, and treat others as only functional means to an end, then we are not only denied true friendships when living but also, when we die, we will cease to live on meaningfully in the memory of others.
Returning to Axelrod, we might say that he has painted a picture of how cooperation may emerge between us as economic beings, yet that doesn’t capture the hows and whys of how cooperation emerges between us as social beings. And it is our acceptance — or rejection — of our status as social beings which creates the opportunity for cooperation beyond the scope of material self-interest. Scrooge might not stab his business partners in the back because it will cost him money, but he has no qualms about making Bob Cratchit’s life miserable until he comes to embrace his status as a social being. To wrap things up, the political science question that obtains from this bit of Monday musing is how to model interactions in way that elegantly captures both individual material incentives and social spiritual incentives.** Until we do that, we are left with too many questions about why cooperation fails to take hold in social systems.
* It should be noted that when Phil first realizes his situation, his first instinct is towards anti-social behavior, but this soon bores him.
** In international relations terms this means balancing both realist/hard power concerns and liberal/soft power concerns instead of asserting the importance of one over the other.