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The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod [Book]

About the author of “The Evolution of Cooperation”

Robert Axelrod is a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, a member of the American Academy of Sciences, also a recipient of the 2014 US Presidential Science Award. Robert is a well-known expert in behaviour analysis and game theory.

Book Summary of “The Evolution of Cooperation”

The Evolution of Cooperation is a classic read in the field of game theory. An important conclusion of the author is that the more frequently people interact with each other, the greater the possibility of successful cooperation.

Robert also organized two rounds of the “Repetitive Prisoner’s Dilemma” competition. By analyzing the “live-and-let-live” strategy that won the competition, it reached the keys to successes, and further explored the conditions for promoting cooperation and maintaining successful cooperation.

Key Messages / Core ideas of “The Evolution of Cooperation”

The core idea of ​​this book is that cooperation requires frequent communication and encouragement. For individuals, pursuing cooperation is the best encouragement and reward for further cooperation. Taking initiatives and showing willingness to cooperate and being loyal to cooperation is a magic weapon for maintaining cooperative relations.

Prisoner’s dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic hypothesis in game theory- the repetition of the prisoner’s dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma assumes that two criminals are arrested for the same case and are about to be questioned separately. At this time, the two criminals faced two diametrically opposed choices: to cooperate with each other and not to admit the crime; or to betray the other and confess everything to the police. But there is an important premise here, that is, two people can’t confess, and they need to make a choice without knowing what the other party will do.

The result of the combination of different choices is this: they all choose to work together for 1 year in prison, and they all choose to betray together for 8 years. When one person co-operates with another betrayal, the cooperating person needs 10 years, and the betrayal person is released directly.

Repeating this assumption can simulate the attitude of individuals chasing their own interests towards cooperation and betrayal, which is also the basis of the entire book.


The author found that the best-performing strategy is called “Live-and-let-live” through computer experiments that simulate “repetitive prisoner’s dilemma.” When this strategy is selected for the first time, it will choose to cooperate, and then it will start to repeat the previous choice of the opponent. That is to say, if the opponent chooses to cooperate, “Live-and-let-live” will use rewards to reward the opponent; if the opponent chooses to betray, “tit-for-tat” will also choose to betray to revenge the opponent.

The advantage of this strategy is that it has four characteristics of goodness, revenge, tolerance and clarity at the same time. It proactively releases goodwill at the beginning, and at the same time adheres to its own principles, giving corresponding rewards to both collaborators and defectors And don’t hold a grudge.

This will encourage the opponent to cooperate with it to the greatest extent, so it is the best one to get along with all other strategies.

Robert believes that going after self-interest is a human instinct, so the best way to encourage cooperation is to make the benefits of cooperation outweigh harms. The easiest and crudest method is to artificially maximize the benefits of cooperation.

If you want to be more euphemistic, or putting too much effort upfront, you can select to increase the steps of cooperation to create more opportunities for both parties to retaliate against each other, avoiding big bang damages. In this way, the two sides fear the retaliation of the other side, they will be more inclined to choose cooperation or speed up the cooperation.

Reputation in the book of “The Evolution of Cooperation”

We may that credibility is the evaluation of a person’s degree of honestly. In fact, credibility can also reflect a person’s trait or style of handling different situations. Therefore, when building credibility, not only that you should care about the evaluation by others, but also paying attention to the kind of message you are “communicating” from your actions.

Will these signals /hidden messages encourage coorpoeration? or the signals are heightening other people’s alert level?

The best reputation can encourage those with good faith to cooperate with you, and also warn those who try to take advantage to keep a distance from you.

Jealousy and “cleverness” can cause more harms

People who are easy to be jealous or over calculating their rewards re mostly influenced by thinking of zero-sum game. They always believe that everything in the world is a win-lose situation, as opposed to win-win.

They do not want others to be successful, or they want to win it all. They do not know that there is still a win-win and lose-win game relationship in this world.

Jealousy and cleverness often lead people to make betrayal choices. If such betrayal is retaliated, it may lead to a vortex of uncooperative and eventually only bring down oneself.

Cole notes of “The Evolution of Cooperation”

  1. Continuously releasing the signal of willingness to cooperate does not build a good reputation, a good reputation must be able to prevent others from betrayal.
  2. It is not a long-term plan to achieve success by taking advantage of others. If you want to survive in this era of rapid iteration, it is best not to betray earlier than others.
  3. Honest cooperation is the best bet.
  4. Stop comparing yourself with your opponents. We should compare with those who are in a similar situation as us. Will someone else in my situation do better than me and gain more?

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About the author

Jess Man

Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Diversity Advisor at Diversity Social. Jessica has over 10 years of working with and advising employers to be more diverse and create an inclusive working environment.
Jessica's experience spans private and non-profit sectors in multiple industries.
Jessica's expertise experience is beyond Diversity & Inclusion, she is also a certified professional IT recruiter in Data & Analytics, Database administration, Artificial Intelligence area.