Garrett Jones on Cooperation

One early insight [from Gary Miller’s Managerial Dilemmas: The Political Economy of Hierarchy] is that Arrow’s impossibility theorem applies to any kind of decision within a firm. If you have three top managers who are trying to decide the strategy of the company, and they disagree slightly on where the company should be taken — wow, that can lead to classic preference cycling, a classic Condorcet paradox.

“The only thing that can solve this problem is to realize that firm culture is basically an equilibrium to a repeated prisoner’s dilemma, a long-run cooperation game.”

why are smarter groups of people more cooperative, on average?

Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation really had a huge influence on how I think about the hive mind. The three traits that turned out to be especially crucial are what I call the three Ps of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, the RPD. It turns out that intelligent people are more patient, they are more pleasant, and they are more perceptive.

In order to get good cooperation in groups, it helps to have people who are focused on the long run, who are willing to take a little risk today in order to get back some return to their cooperation in the future, so they need to be more patient.

They need to be more pleasant. They need to be more willing to start off cooperating, to take a chance on cooperation early in the game. It turns out, experiments showed that they, in fact, do that on average. And they need to be more perceptive. They need to keep track of the fact that they’re playing a game and that there are payoffs happening. Remembering the history of a game — and life is a game in many ways — is important to generating cooperation.

So smarter people tend to have all three traits in greater degree: more patient, more perceptive, more pleasant. And those three Ps of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma are crucial for group cooperation.

COWEN: In some studies, the personality psychology trait called conscientiousness doesn’t seem to predict cooperation at all. Why is that? How do you make sense of that result?
JONES: I think, partly, it’s because it’s none of the three Ps of the RPD. But to go beyond that to real substance, it’s that cooperation is pretty dangerous. A person who’s conscientious in trying to make sure that they’re watching out for their themselves or their loved ones should be a bit reluctant to just jump into a pro-social, pro-cooperation relationship because a lot of people get ripped off.
So a prudent person who isn’t able to tell whether you’re dealing with someone who’s trustworthy, should best respond in an untrustworthy way. If I don’t know whether I’m surrounded by scoundrels or saints, it’s probably a little safer to assume that I’m surrounded by scoundrels. And a person who is conscientious will be more likely to just notice that fact.

I think part of this is that the way jobs are constructed is that jobs are constructed to be, in many ways, foolproof, so that a person can’t screw it up that much. So being the very smartest person in a particular job category might not make you that much more productive than being the worst person in that job category, but that’s partly because that job category was created so people couldn’t screw it up that much.

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