The Citizens Handbook
prisoners score
Cooperation first


For any campaign, the best approach is to begin with cooperation no matter how bad your opposition may appear.

Robert Axelrod's much cited book, The Evolution of Cooperation, spells out the best strategy for any contest. It is called tit-for-tat:
1. Always begin with cooperation.
2. After the first move, echo what the other player does. Cooperate if the other party cooperates; defect if the other party defects. In the absence of further defection, return to cooperation.

Tit-for-tat consistently produced the highest scores in a computer tournament Axelrod set up in the 1970s. A professor of political science, Axelrod invited parties around the world to create a set of rules that would instruct computers playing a game iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. Axelrod wanted to identify the smartest combination of cooperation and non-cooperation (or defection).

Axelrod showed that highest scoring rule sets emphasized cooperation. The lowest scoring sets emphasized defection, even though in the game any single act of defection can earn a higher score. But the benefits of cooperation only apply to games between relative equals, where the game is repeated with no clear end. If participants can see the end of the game, defecting becomes increasingly more attractive as the end draws near because, when the relationship has ended, the other party cannot retaliate.

Participants in Axelrod's tournaments submitted many different sets of rules, some very complicated, but tit-for-tat always came out on top. Other simple strategies did not fare well. Always cooperating, even though the other party defects, produced low scores because it encouraged the other party to keep on defecting. Always defecting produced repeated retaliation by the other party and low scores for both sides.

Axelrod's computer tournaments sound artificial, but his conclusions apply to many real-world situations.

From different perpsective, human civilization seems evolve through cooperation. Today we benefit from fewer wars than in the past, more trade and financial agreements, and greater sharing of scientific research. From small to large scale, the guiding rule should be: Begin with cooperation but follow the strategy of tit-for-tat.

See also Gandhi's Methods for Converting an Opponent


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The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of the handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots wilt, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from Amazon or from New Society Publishers.