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Promoting Cooperation Using Tit-For-Tat

By Henry E. Peelle III, D.M.


Laboratory research provided compelling evidence of the effectiveness of the Tit-for-Tat strategy in promoting cooperative behaviors in mixed-motive social dilemmas. Reciprocity of non-cooperativeness rendered impotent a strategy based on exploitation, thus prompting opponents to adopt cooperation. Yet, game theory failed to emulate the complexity and dynamics of actual negotiation. When applied to actual negotiations, the Tit-for-Tat strategy might be more beneficial as a heuristic device with which to interpret the actions of opponents, create a shared understanding of negotiation norms, and promote discursive synchronization.

Promoting cooperation using Tit-For-Tat

Laboratory research (Oskamp, 1977; Parks & Rumble, 2001; Pruitt & Kimmel, 1977) demonstrated that the reciprocation strategy called Tit-for-Tat (TFT) was an effective approach for promoting cooperative behaviors in mixed-motive situations. Mixed motives resulted when maximization of individual goals were incompatible with the maximization of collective goals (Oskamp, 1977). When two parties engaged in a sequential series of repetitive and ongoing mixed-motive negotiations, an opening strategy of initial cooperation followed by fast forgiveness after the opponent shifted to cooperation or slow but inevitable retaliation in response to non-cooperative moves resulted in higher levels of cooperative behavior than strategies using unconditional cooperation or non-cooperation (Parks & Rumble, 2001).

This article begins with an overview of the tenets of the prisoner's dilemma and the TFT solution. Included is a review of current and historical research on TFT, a discussion of the effects of negotiator social motivations on the selection of strategic moves, and prerequisites for effective TFT implementation. Rapoport (1985) noted that game theory failed to replicate the complexity of human interactions. This article then suggests that TFT is also a heuristic and discursive device promoting cooperation by framing perceptions and synchronizing interactional patterns. The article concludes by noting that managers, as practical authors, can initiate change by altering patterns and rules guiding interaction (Cunliffe, 2001).

Prisoner's Dilemma

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An extensively researched mixed-motive strategic game was the Prisoner's Dilemma (Oskamp, 1977). In a two-person prisoner's dilemma, each player had a choice of taking a cooperative or non-cooperative stance. From an individualistic perspective, a posture of non-cooperation was always the best strategy when the objective was to maximize individual outcomes relative to an opponent (Komorita, Hilty, & Parks, 1991). Maximization of combined outcomes required both parties to cooperate. Cooperation resulted in greater individual outcomes relative to outcomes resulting from mutual non-cooperation. However, a strategy of defection, characterized by a proponent pursuing non-cooperation while an opponent chose cooperation, led to the greatest possible outcome for the defecting proponent while the opponent received the lowest possible outcome. Thus, a defining characteristic of the prisoner's dilemma is a hierarchy of outcomes where the greatest outcome is achieved by the non-cooperating proponent facing a cooperative opponent, followed by mutual cooperation, mutual non-cooperation, and lastly, the sucker play where proponent cooperation is met by opponent non-cooperation (Poundstone, 1993). Figure 1 illustrates a typical payout matrix for the prisoner's dilemma.

Figure 1: Prisoner's dilemma payout matrix

  Party A
Cooperation Non-Cooperation
Cooperation (6,6) (0,10)
Non-Cooperation (10,0) (2,2)

Note: The first number represents player B's payoff and the second number represents player A's payoff.

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February 2006