An empirical approach to being nice (but not a pushover) in the workplace

In life, many of us grapple with the balance between being kind or assertive to advance ourselves, whether in personal interactions or professional pursuits. We’re constantly faced with choices: to cooperate for mutual benefit or to compete to gain advantage over others.

We are often caught in a dilemma because advice from management experts and life coaches often fluctuates between extremes, urging us to either always be accommodating or to adopt a fiercely competitive stance. 

In 1984, Dr. Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan devised an ingenious empirical experiment to tackle this dilemma, based on an iterative version of the classic game theory experiment known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

In the iterative version of this game, two players engage in a set number of rounds. In each round, players must decide whether to cooperate or defect. If both chooses to cooperate, they each gain three points. If both defects, they only receive a point each. However, if one cooperates while the other defects, the defector gains five points while the cooperator earns none. The player with the most accumulated points at the end of all rounds is declared the winner.

Dr. Axelrod formatted the experiment to be in the form of a tournament where the different strategies are written in the form of computer programs which are then pitted against one another in a round robin manner. Prominent scholars from diverse fields submitted computer programs embodying different decision strategy and rules.

Some programs were rather sophisticated in the sense that can probe other programs to try and tease the logic that they are playing against. Some have complex probability rules that tries to predict future moves of another program from the past output of those programs.

Surprisingly, the winning strategy, “Tit-for-Tat,” submitted by Professor Anatol Rapoport of the University of Toronto, proved remarkably effective despite its simplicity.

Tit-for-Tat” starts cooperatively and only defects in response to the opponent’s prior defection. This strategy outperformed more complex approaches, highlighting the power of simplicity in decision-making.

Analysis of the tournament revealed key insights:

Niceness: The top-performing strategies favored a “nice” approach, refraining from being the first to defect. These strategies consistently outscored less cooperative ones, even when pitted against each other.

Forgiveness: Programs exhibiting forgiveness towards occasional defections performed better overall. “Tit-for-Tat,” with its short memory and willingness to cooperate after a single retaliation, exemplified this forgiving yet assertive approach.

A subsequent tournament, featuring more sophisticated strategies and an unspecified number of rounds per game, reaffirmed the dominance of “Tit-for-Tat” and the effectiveness of niceness and forgiveness.

In addition to the reaffirmation of these findings, researchers also noted the importance of an additional behavior for success:

Provocability: strategies that swiftly retaliate against perceived unfairness fare better because they course correct the behavior of the programs that they are playing against.

While these experiments offer valuable insights into cooperation, it’s crucial to acknowledge the complexity of real-world interactions involving multiple actors. Nevertheless, they provide empirical support for the efficacy of being nice, quick to retaliate against exploitation, and forgiving when cooperation is restored.

“The discovery of subtle reasons for the individualistic pragmatist to be nice, forgiving, and optimistic is an unexpected bonus.”

Effective Choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Evolution of Cooperation Book Cover

Dr. Axelrod’s book, “The Evolution of Cooperation,” offers further exploration of these principles in a more accessible format. Ultimately, while being nice initially yields benefits, prompt retaliation against exploitation and forgiveness for renewed cooperation can lead to sustained mutual gains in most interactions.


Effective Choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Robert Axelrod, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 3-25
More Effective Choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Robert Axelrod , The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Sep., 1980), pp. 379-403

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