What happens when above average and below average ability people have to deal with each other?
Specifically, how will they interact when potentially both are able to gain from the exchange? It seems obvious that they should cooperate, and extract the greatest amount of mutual gain, but does this really happen in situations where there are also gains to be made from not cooperating?
How do bright and dull cope with each other now, in ordinary life, particularly when they cannot all meet face to face, but have to deal with the consequences of each other’s behaviours. Do these two groups understand each other, or are they always at loggerheads, doomed to perpetual conflict? Why can’t we all get along with each other?
I never say of any book that it has changed my life. People and events have changed my life, but books have only changed my mind. Robert Axelrod’s 1990 “The evolution of co-operation” was one such book. He wondered how co-operation could emerge in a world of self-seeking egoists – whether superpowers, businesses, or individuals – when there was no central authority to police their actions. I enjoyed his analysis of Prisoner’s Dilemma competitions, and the simplicity of “Tit for Tat”, which turned out to be the winning strategy. Start by cooperating, then do unto others as they do unto you.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a conceptual game in which two people accused of a crime are held separately, and each is told that if they implicate the other they will be set free. Clearly, if both keep quiet they both will be released for lack of evidence, but the sting is that the person who cooperates with the Police gets sets free and the other denounced person serves a long time behind bars. If there is solidarity among criminals then both will keep quiet and each will be released. If either one breaks, then the other is heavily punished. If prisoners doubt each other, both may denounce each other, to their profound mutual disadvantage.
It is a long time since I looked at the literature on this game, but decades ago I think no-one bothered to research whether intelligence made a difference. Experimentalists rarely considered this possibility. Now a team have looked at this, with very interesting results, which may have wide application. They studied how intelligence and personality affected the outcomes of games, focusing on repeated interactions that provide the opportunity for profitable cooperation.
Intelligence, personality and gains from cooperation in repeated interactions.
EUGENIO PROTO, ALDO RUSTICHINI, and ANDIS SOFIANOS.
Journal of Political Economy (2019).
This is a very interesting and complex paper, and I have left out any consideration of the other games they have tested, and the further neuro-scanning measures they took of participants while playing games, which reveal that intelligent people showed more brain activity, presumably as they worked on the different strategies required for optimal cooperation. I will mention their personality measures in passing, because the intelligence differences were the most significant.
The method was as follows:
Our design involves a two-part experiment administered over two different days separated by one day in between. Participants are allocated into two groups according to some individual characteristic that is measured during the first part, and they are asked to return to a specific session to play several repetitions of a repeated game. Each repeated game is played with a new partner. The individual characteristics that we consider are: intelligence, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, across different treatments that we will define as IQ-split, A-split and C-split, respectively.
In one treatment, participants are not separated according to any characteristic, but rather allocated to ensure similar groups across characteristics; we define this the combined treatment.
There were 792 subjects in all, university students on a wide range of courses, and on average they earned £20 each, of which £4 was paid for showing up. Motivating but not life-changing. Only 1 or 2 per 100 mentioned intelligence as the possible difference between groups, which strongly suggests that other explanations came to mind more readily. Instructive that we assume complicated motives rather than simple lack of understanding. It may be yet another example that bright people assume that others can think like them.
First, the authors show that brighter people do better at cooperation games than duller people. They cooperate more, and thus end up with higher final scores. Since the scores convert to money, they end up richer. They avoid immediate selfish gains in order to obtain higher long-term cooperative returns. Smart strategy. As an analogy for how they operate in real life, they are likely to reap the benefits of maximal cooperation, leading to increasing wealth.
The researchers then deliberately paired up an above average intelligence player with one who was below average to see what happened. The overall return to the participants fell, because lower ability players tended to defect so as to obtain an immediate advantage, at great cost to the other player. How should the bright player respond? Simply continuing to try to cooperate does not work, because the duller player is then rewarded for his lack of cooperation. Instead, the “tit for tat” punishment strategy is required. Start by cooperating, and on the next round do whatever the other person did: if they cooperated, you cooperate; if they defected, you defect. The researchers call this “tough love”.
Four applications of retaliation were, on average, required to teach the lesson that lack of cooperation would be punished with reciprocal lack of cooperation. Eventually cooperation is established between bright and dull, but at an initial cost. Lower intelligence players learn to cooperate, because higher intelligence players punish them if they don’t. In societies where cooperation is already low, lenient and forgiving strategies become less frequent. There is very probably a level at which trust can be assumed, but below that punishment will be the norm. Where is the social tipping point below which cooperation is too costly a strategy? At what point do civil societies collapse and turn into uncivil bands?
The outcome of games with a trade-off between short-run gain and continuation value loss was strikingly different when played by subjects with higher or lower levels of intelligence. Higher intelligence resulted in significantly higher levels of cooperation and earnings. The failure of individuals with lower intelligence to appropriately estimate the future consequences of current actions accounts for these differences in outcomes. Personality also affects behavior, but in smaller measure, and with low persistence. These results have potentially important implications for policy. For example, while the complex effects of early childhood intervention on the development of intelligence are still currently being evaluated (e.g. Heckman, 2006), our results suggest that any such effect would potentially enhance not only the economic success of the individual, but the level of cooperation in society (at least when interactions are repeated).
Everything else being equal, groups composed of individuals with higher levels of intelligence exhibit higher or equal levels of cooperation in the class of games we consider. In our data, intelligence is associated with different long-run behavior in a sequence of repeated games played within the group, and higher cooperation rates are associated with higher intelligence.
Higher cooperation rates are produced by interaction over time in group of individuals with higher intelligence. Cooperation rates in the initial rounds (approximately 20 rounds) are statistically equal in the two groups. Thus, the experience of past interaction, not a difference in attitude in the initial stages, explains the higher cooperation rate.
Higher cooperation is sensitive to the continuation probability, so it is not the result of an unconditional inclination of higher intelligence individuals to cooperate. Intelligence operates via strategy implementation and strategic thinking.
As an analogy for the interaction in society between citizens of different levels of intelligence, this finding would seem to have very wide application. From one perspective, punishment is required to keep the lower classes in line. A cognitive elite must be firm but fair, and not shrink from teaching their inferiors that their impulsive actions have consequences. Law and Order. Clear rules and clear punishments.
From another perspective, the short-term advantage of defection is being harshly castigated by overlords those who cannot live for the moment: killjoys with miserly habits, censorious guardians of the nanny state. On the contrary, looking after one’s self and living in the moment are harmless pleasures. Be happy, don’t worry, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
The Ant and the Grasshopper.
Perhaps this paper allows us to look at the evolution of cooperation in a new light, as something which is central to civilization and which requires leadership and charity in equal measure. Cognitive elites exist, and under the concept of noblesse oblige should organize society so that cooperation is paramount. It comes at great cost, but the costs of perpetual defection are higher.
On a flippant note, I asked Aldo Rustichini what he would predict for Mafiosos playing the game. According to tradition, they should maintain their vow of silence, and never defect. However, in recent times “omertà” has given way to “il penitente” blabbing about the crimes of their fellow gang members, showing that even career criminals can have a conscience, or at least a wish to live outside prison, even if for ever in fear of their lives.
As far as I know, although the authors have many more results in the pipeline, they have not yet studied this group, but it would make a good PhD thesis for a brave investigator.