The Good Show – Radiolab

Did you know at one point in WWI the English and Germans on some front lines ceased fighting and hung out with one another for a week? Or how about the theory that being “good” or “altruistic” just might be encoded into our DNA? These are just some of the things featured this week in WNYC’s Radiolab podcast. For those of you unfamiliar with it, this podcast is both entertaining and informative, and the hosts have a wonderful rapport that is downright charming.

What I enjoyed most I would like to rephrase here with my own little spin on it. Robert Axelrod, professor at the University of Michigan, created a competition based on the prisoner’s dilemma thought experiment to determine which strategy would be best when dealing with complex situations like the Cuban Missile crisis. The tournament involved people who had written papers on the prisoner’s dilemma by asking them to compose computer programs on their theories. Each program would be played against every other strategy program 200 times. Points would accrue each “game” and at the end, one winner would arise. Here were some of the games mentioned in the podcast and their basic strategies:

  • Massive Retaliatory Strike: This program cooperates at first, but after the other program provokes it the MRS program continues to retaliate indefinitely regardless of how the other program responds.
  • Tester: This program basically creates a profile of its opponent through a series of tests. Provoke, learn, provoke, learn, cooperate, learn, and so on.

The winner had only 2 lines of code. It was called Tit for Tat. Here’s how it would behave:

  • First, be nice. (Apparently the word “nice” is in the code!) The program is never the first to incite a problem or confrontation.
  • Second, do equally in return whatever the other program does. So this means Tit for Tat never takes reparations from its opponent in the form of retaliation. It also means it is not a push-over. It doesn’t take the other program’s crap, but it always responds proportionally to the attack. In other words: it doesn’t over-react. And finally, the program goes back to hunky-dory land after that. Square one. Everything is A-OK. (Had enough of the cheesy phrases?! Ha!)

What is exciting about this post you may ask? Well, they theorize that if in a world full of retaliatory people the “nice” people can find one another, those people have a good chance of filling the world with their niceness (a.k.a. winning). Apparently this mode of interaction theoretically brings one the most advantages out in the real world!

Tit for Tat‘s rules reflect the exact actions I think one needs to maintain a pretty pleasant existence. The narrator Andrew Zolli cites the ideal combination of the two rules, saying that the best probable version of Tit for Tat is to be nice 90% of the time, and respond-in-kind 10% of the time. After all, sometimes a person is simply having a bad day and there’s no need to be one of those “right back atcha” kind of people. Why provoke one another when you could be on your merry way?

Thanks for reading and definitely check out the Radiolab podcast here (you can also subscribe for free on I-Tunes):

The Good Show – Radiolab.