Improv skills lead to success

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 2

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In my previous post, I described the Prisoner’s dilemma, a classic 2 x 2 game structured so the players are coerced into violating the trust of the other player. The strategy for a single round of the Prisoner’s dilemma is to defect, selling out the other player and eliminating the prospect of a huge negative outcome for yourself. But what about playing the game multiple times, perhaps many times?

Improv groups and businesses are meant it to be long-lived entities. The group I’m with, ComedySportz Portland, was founded in 1993 – as of this writing, we’ve been around for 19 years. I like to joke that it means we’ve lasted 38 times longer than the average improv group. Sure, there are plenty of groups that have been around for a long time, but there are quite a few more that have blown up in very short order.

What makes some groups stay together and others break apart? One thing that can make it happen is taking advantage of the other individuals in your group, whether by not making good on your promises or by not cooperating during scenes. Some examples of not cooperating can include making personal comments at another player’s expense, such as about their weight, height, or the choices that they made; denying other players’ choices during a scene or game; or showing up late (or not at all) to a rehearsal or performance. Taking advantage of the goodwill of your fellow players is extremely shortsighted. Forming a successful group is incredibly difficult, so you should do your best to ensure the group you’re with carries on, or at least that you don’t burn any bridges if you do decide to leave.

As Robert Axelrod noted in his book, The Evolution of Cooperation, and Scott Stevens noted in his Games People Play course for The Great Courses, the more likely it is for the game to continue, the more incentive you have to continue cooperating throughout the entire game. The same consideration applies to business relationships. Con artists can get money out of their victims and disappear knowing that, if their luck holds, they will never have to encounter that individual again. For business professionals, you have to take the opposite approach. Even though many of us change jobs and industries, it’s very likely that we will encounter the same individuals during our work lives. We should cultivate the best relationships we can. In game theoretic terms, that means we should cooperate whenever possible.

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