Nine parts Moses, one part Jesus: a recipe for resilient social systems?

Eye for an eye or turn the other cheek?  Which strategy is the winning one for computer games, people, animals, amoebas?  Which social strategy results in societies which survive and thrive?

Donkey_OTay+Sancho_PandaWe finally got some rain yesterday and I’m sure it fell on both Democrats and Republicans.  Yet some of my Democrat friends are convinced Republicans are evil and vice versa.  I’ve been active in politics and policy for more than 40 years and I’ve never seen it this bad.  Neither party trusts the other and each attributes the basest motives to the other.  It’s a recipe for societal destruction.

In some societies trust levels are even lower, no one trusts anyone except maybe some family members.  Most Middle Eastern and African societies and the former Soviet Union provide great examples.  In such societies, a vicious cycle maintains distrust.  “Do unto them before they do until you” is a reasonable strategy when you know no one is going to work together.  Where everyone is out for themselves and you know everyone is going to be selfish, the only rational approach is to be mean and selfish.

Empirical study of social interaction shows that such an approach inevitably leads to destruction of the social systems, with the scorched earth of the ruined cities of the Middle East as reminders.

Two thousand years ago another approach emerged: when someone slaps you, don’t slap him back, turn the other cheek.  It’s gotten some superficial loyalty.  About a third of the world says they are Christians, and they may even turn the other cheek sometimes around other Christians.  But the strategy doesn’t seem to work really well in most interactions.  The mean aggressive person always wins when the strategy is turn the other cheek.  Even the most Christian father will usually tell his son: You have to stand up for yourself,

So neither the eye for an eye or the turn the other cheek works very well.  What does?

Experimental research on cooperation and competition shows the “tit for tat strategy” is most resilient.  The rules of this strategy are simple:  1. always cooperate until provoked, 2. if provoked, retaliate, 3. forgive quickly, 4. make sure others know you want to cooperate.

This strategy, explored intensively since the early 1980s, nearly always wins.   Except when you get into a death spiral where each side perceives itself as willing to cooperate, if only the other would.  Then someone has to forgive and cooperate to break the cycle. Otherwise each continues to hurt the other and the system devolves.

One little tweak to tit for tat optimizes the program.  This is where we get Generous tit for tat.  The second rule (always retaliate when the other guy messes with you) gets modified to not always retaliate, but nearly always retaliate.  In most situations, that translates to not retaliating about one in 10 times after sustaining an attack.  This modification stops the death spiral.

“For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,” according to one commentator. “This is a strategy that just seems to be woven into the fabric of the cosmos.  It works for computers.  It works for people.  It probably works for amoebas.  It just works.”

This commentator’s enthusiasm is a little overblown.  The generous tit for tat strategy works except when the there are competing groups.  When one group treats itself differently from the rest of the population, another strategy dominates: discriminatory tit for tat.  This strategy continues to employ tit for tat within their group to help the group thrive.  The out-group is treated differently.

In discriminatory tit for tat, you never cooperate with the out-group.  “You can’t trust those guys.”  We know that story line well.  Hatfield and McCoys, Sharks and Jets, Americans and Russians, Moslems and Christians.  Once this strategy is entrenched, it’s virtually impossible to dislodge.  Each group will take advantage of the other whenever possible and neither will cooperate for mutual advantage.

The end is usually one group winning.  Then this group develops divisions and the same process occurs again.

Occasionally, the two groups complement each other and are able to coexist.  Koreans in black neighborhoods, Jews in medieval Christian cities, Chinese in Mississippi Delta towns, and innumerable other examples shown how two groups can remain separate and each thrive.  Each provides something the other population needs.  This complementary diversity is a quality of all resilient systems.

In natural ecosystems, the two groups become reproductively distinct species.  As long as each is contributing to the other, both will survive, but neither is concerned about the survival of the other.

So maybe the separation and antagonism of Democrat and Republican will have a happy ending of complementary diversity, symbiosis, mutualism.  Unfortunately, this result is far less common than the elimination of one or the other group.

A third option is also possible in the open systems which all natural systems are.  A third group can be waiting in the wings while the two bickering groups are so preoccupied with each other.  Then, before any complementary relationships have a chance to develop, the third group sweeps in and wipes out the first two competitors. Too few stalwart Democrats or Republicans have been to Africa or Asia lately to see what “waiting in the wings” means to China.

Whatever the outcome of the current American political drama, it is but one of the millions of similar interactions of species and populations in ecosystems throughout the world.  In all of them, the “generous tit for tat strategy” nearly always wins. So apply it to all the systems you interact with.  Then you’ll be creating more resilient systems to cope with whatever results unfold at other scales.


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