Improv skills lead to success

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 5

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This is the final post in my series on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Five blog posts might seem like a lot, but many doctoral dissertations have been written on the ramifications of this deceptively simple game.

Robert Axelrod was one of first researchers to study how competing strategies for playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma interacted in a tournament setting. One of Axelrod’s main conclusions is that you can maximize your payoff in a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament by following a nice strategy. That is, not defecting first. He also noted that it was possible for other strategies to beat the winner, Tit for Tat, by defecting first to get the higher payoff and then defecting every turn thereafter to ensure that the other program could never retaliate effectively. Over time, this strategy does not yield a higher payoff than the nice Tit for Tat; the aggressive strategy did not win either tournament.

But what happens if you put the nice Tit for Tat in an environment with a lot of aggressive programs? The answer is that Tit for Tat will always give up the higher payoff to its opponent in the first round and get the minimum payoff in every subsequent round. Based on those rules, Tit for Tat is guaranteed to lose. If you were to put a set of strategies into a tournament and then eliminate the bottom half of the field, Tit for Tat would always be eliminated, and the other more successful strategies would continue on. Those strategies being the aggressive, not nice, strategy of always defecting first and continuing to do so on every subsequent turn.

This type of attack is called an invasion. If you run a tournament and eliminate the bottom half of the field at the end of each run you’ll find certain strategies win out. If you introduce even a small number of these dominant strategies into a tournament, they will eventually take over. The problem becomes even worse if you create a series of strategies that can recognize kindred spirits, enabling them to work together to maximize their payoff by cooperating.

You can find the same type of behavior in business. In many cases when the group or company starts, you’ll find that everyone cooperates. The problem comes in when someone who doesn’t cooperate starts to get some success in the company. As the aggression is rewarded, other individuals adopt the same strategy. In time, those players can squeeze out the players who play a nice, cooperative strategy within the business. It’s a true management headache, one that is extremely difficult to stamp out once it gets started. Plus, as the aggressive players get promoted higher and higher, the reward structure changes. Now individuals who are willing to work with the aggressive individuals are rewarded with their own promotions and higher responsibilities.

In most cases, the company can continue on with this type of environment, despite the fact that there is a lack of trust among the players. In fact, this type of environment can fuel creativity for those individuals who revel in interpersonal conflict and feel it helps their creativity. At the same time, though, an organization might begin to experience problems associated with a lack of cooperation. Always looking to put one over on the other guy makes it difficult to trust anyone else, especially when you’re looking over your shoulder to see who will get the next promotion. These behaviors can lead to stress, burnout, and high turnover. In a company that requires highly skilled personnel, losing a solid contributor because of a toxic work environment is extremely costly.

In improvisational comedy groups, you find the same thing happens especially at the beginning of the group’s life. As individuals jockey for position within the group and try to have an impact on how things will be run, you will often find that individuals who started in the group either drop out or get kicked out after they try to change the group through aggression or passive aggression by not following directions of the group’s leadership. Well-established organizations with a solid player roster and workshops from which to bring in new players are less susceptible to this sort of issue. The group’s culture is solid, and the workshop process allows management to decide which players will be promoted and included in the team.

Smaller groups, such as touring companies with only four or five players, can be susceptible to problems. The trick, as always, is to select your fellow performers wisely. In many cases, it’s better to join another group or start a new group of your own than it is to continue on in a bad situation. Sometimes leaving a bad job is the best thing you could possibly do.

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