Unselfish behavior and cooperation cannot be taken for granted. Mohamed Salahshour of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Science (now at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour), used a game-theory-based approach to show why it can be beneficial for individuals to set aside their self-interest.
One of the fundamental questions facing humanity is: Why do we act ethically? For it is by no means self-evident that under certain circumstances we would put our self-interest aside and put ourselves in the service of a group—sometimes to the point of self-sacrifice. Many theories have been developed to get to the bottom of this ethical conundrum. There are two popular proposed solutions: that individuals help their relatives so that shared genes survive (inbreeding), and that the principle of “scratching my back and I’ll scratch yours” applies. If people help each other, everyone benefits in the end (principle of reciprocity).
The prisoner’s dilemma is accompanied by a coordination game
Mathematician Mohamed Salahshour of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, used the tools of game theory to explain the emergence of moral norms — because game theory studies how people make rational decisions in conflict situations. For Salahshur, the question was initially: Why do moral norms exist in the first place? And why do we have different, or even contradictory, moral standards? For example, while some rules such as “help others,” promote self-sacrificing behaviour, others, such as dress codes, seem to have little to do with curbing selfishness. To answer these questions, Salahshur paired two games: the first, the classic prisoner’s dilemma, in which two players must decide whether to cooperate for a small reward or betray themselves for a much larger reward (a social dilemma). This game can be a typical example of a social dilemma, where the success of the group as a whole requires individuals to act selflessly. In this game everyone loses if too many group members act selfishly, compared to a scenario where everyone acts altruistically. However, if only a few individuals act selfishly, they can get a better result than their altruistic team members. Second, a game that focuses on typical decisions within groups, such as the task of coordinating, distributing resources, selecting a leader, or resolving conflicts. Many of these problems can eventually be classified as coordination or non-coordination problems.
Without combining the two games, it is clear that in the prisoner’s dilemma, cooperation does not bear fruit, and behavior based on self-interest is the best option from an individual’s perspective if there are enough people acting altruistically. But individuals who act selfishly are not able to solve coordination problems efficiently and lose a lot of resources due to failure to coordinate their activity. The situation can be very different when the results of the two games are considered as a whole and there are ethical standards at work that favor cooperation: now cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma can suddenly pay off because the gain in the second game more than compensates for the loss in the first game.
Out of self-interest to coordinate and cooperate
As a result of this process, not only cooperative behavior emerges, but also a social order. All individuals benefit from it – which is why ethical behavior pays off. “In my evolutionary model, there were no selfless behaviors to begin with, but more and more moral norms emerged as a result of the pairing of the two games,” says Salahchur. “Then I noticed a sudden transition to a system where there is a lot of collaboration.” In this “moral state” a set of coordinating norms develops that help individuals to better coordinate their activity, and it is precisely through this that social norms and moral norms can emerge. However, coordination norms favor cooperation: cooperation has been shown to be a rewarding behavior for the individual as well. Mohamed Salahshour: “The moral system behaves like a Trojan horse: once it is established out of the self-interest of individuals to promote order and organization, it also brings cooperation in self-sacrifice.”
Salahshur hopes through his work to better understand social systems. “It could help improve people’s lives in the future,” he explains. “But you can also use a game-theoretic approach to explain the emergence of social norms in social media. There, people exchange information and make strategic decisions at the same time — for example, who to support or why to support.” Again, he said, two dynamics are at work simultaneously: the exchange of information and the emergence of collaborative strategies. Their interaction is not yet well understood – but perhaps game theory will soon shed new light on this topical issue as well.