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One Good Deed Deserves Another

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tic tac toe tic tac toe (cigno5!/flickr)

In the early 60s, Robert Axelrod was a math major messing around with refrigerator-sized computers. Then a dramatic global crisis made him wonder about the space between a rock and a hard place, and whether being good may be a good strategy. With help from Andrew Zolli and Steve Strogatz, we tackle the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic thought experiment, and learn about a simple strategy to navigate the waters of cooperation and betrayal. Then Axelrod, along with Stanley Weintraub, takes us back to the trenches of World War I, to the winter of 1914, and an unlikely Christmas party along the Western Front.




Robert Axelrod, Steve Strogatz, Stanley Weintraub and Andrew Zolli

Comments [20]

DP from O'Fallon, MO

I guess the Prisoner's Dilemma requires that each opponent have similar strength and endurance? Also it does not take alliances into account. ...and that they sometime change from within. Interesting to think how it would translate to diplomacy.

Mar. 31 2017 03:09 PM
Rebecca from Iowa

I heard a repeat of this episode last night on ipr. I thought how timely this was considering our present divisive politics, specifically regarding the refugees being banned from coming to the US. I was disappointed to not hear anything about similar classic psychological experiments and their results. For example, Stanley Milgram's classic experiment/study that showed how people react when an authority tells them to inflict pain on another person. There is also the idea that if you are face to face with your enemy and are able to get to know one another (as those on the Western front did over Christmas) then we are less likely to want to harm them. We must, in my opinion, not allow ourselves to de-humanize the "enemy" as Hitler did in Nazi Germany and as was done even here in US with Japanese Americanstyle. I look forward to a "part2" of this program! :)

Jan. 30 2017 01:12 PM

In a number of examples given on the show (which I recently heard for the first time in rebroadcast), the given is a scenario of physical violence with the response options being the return of physical violence or refraining from physical violence. Additionally, the nomenclature attached to these options seemed to lean pretty heavily on the Judeo-Christian mythos (Moses, Jesus, Devil etc.); so I was wondering if Axelrod had considered trying to come up with programming that could approximate the responses to physical violence provided by any number of Asian martial arts? Tai chi, aikido, jiu jitsu, and others provide any number of responses that disallow any physical harm from an opponent without returning an attack.

Jan. 29 2017 08:17 PM
jim from fredericksburg, VA

Great show. I play the role playing game Diplomacy. It is a game of seven players dividing up the seven major powers of ww1. The game is an exchange of letters to hopefully cooperate with the other powers in attacking some other power. The "stab" is part of the game where you tell one power you'll do one thing, but you do another. As the moves are all revealed at one time by a gamemaster, one never knows what the person who tells you is true or not. One either cooperates and gets "thrown under the wagon" or has success with cooperative players. It is always been a question for me whether the cooperative or "stab" method works best in this game. I think the tit for tat strategy that won in Axelrod's computer tournament is similar to how players do best in this game.

Aug. 09 2015 03:27 PM
Howard A. Landman from Fort Collins, CO

For a long time ... decades ... we thought Tit-For-Tat was the end of the Prisoner's Dilemma story. One strategy to rule them all, provably optimal, empirically victorious. But PD had a few surprises left. William Press was analyzing PD and decided to look at all possible strategies, and one of the things he wanted to know was the derivative of scores with respect to strategy changes. But his program kept dying with segmentation faults from divide-by-zero. He asked Freeman Dyson to look at it, and Dyson discovered that it wasn't a bug, it was an entirely new class of strategies that allow you to control your opponent's score regardless of their actions. This give you the power to blackmail; you can, for example, guarantee that unless your opponent always defects (in which case you both get a bad score), you will always score 3 times what they do. So PD does *not* just explain how altruism works as a strategy, it also explains how bullying and exploitation and "keeping other people in their place" work as strategies.
For more details on Press-Dyson, see or (the original paper) or (Dyson's explanation).

Aug. 09 2015 03:17 PM

BEWARE! There are at least two other links to this important story. Thanks to Dorothy who posted an interim link, I got here! Here is what I commented on the "old" but also working site, along with the working link that was there. (Hope this pre-note makes sense.)
Comment re the Prisoners Dilemma broadcast from Radio Lab

Thanks for the updated link. This story deserves a third title that reflects the applicability of the research to peace-making strategies in all layers of society - in all countries! I am so grateful to WFAE in Charlotte, NC for rebroadcasting this show on August 7, 2015. It clarifies, for me, the "hunch" that the negotiated Nuclear Treaty with Iran is not a "head in the sand" approach but instead a wise decision reached by thoughtful nations, including Iran.

Aug. 09 2015 01:11 PM
Jim Cruz from New York

you guys always amaze me and my reading list has increased greatly since listening to your show. Great broadcast this weekend.

Aug. 08 2015 01:34 PM
David from Halifax

Caught your segment of game theory and Dr. Axelrod's work today. Fascinating! I couldn't help but be reminded of the rule of improv comedy that you always respond with a positive, never a negative.

Aug. 08 2015 12:08 AM
:D from singapore


Feb. 27 2015 07:12 AM


Jul. 13 2013 08:45 PM
Toni Chew from Montana

I've have been a member of the Baha'i Faith (one God, One Religion, one Mankind) for over 30 years, most of it spent as an isolated believer wondering if my participation was of consequence. I was encouraged by the comment concerning computer tit-for-tat that if a 10% initial response was cooperative eventually the outcome may become collaborative - a hopeful sign for humankind. How do I obtain a transcription of program? Thanks.

Jul. 13 2013 04:55 PM
Mark Nassutti from Seattle

We use Prof. Axelrod's research to illustrate the value of collaboration in outsourcing relationships. It helps break down traditional win-lose thinking by showing procurement professionals that it's smarter to collaborate. We've discussed this at and built a practice called to show companies how to implement collaboration successfully.

Jun. 08 2011 06:57 PM

Listening to the segment of the Christmas truce and its aftermath moved me to tears, even though I had heard this story before. It's astounding to think that a few nice people can alter the game plan. Every year I spend a week or two in Fairfield, Iowa, practicing the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program in a group of 2,000 or so. The effects have been measured by independent sociologists who have found a wide range of beneficial results, from lowered crime rates, war deaths, accident rates and absence of major hurricanes from US shores during this time. This is explained as being similar to the Meissner effect in superconductors: the square root of one per cent of a population practising Transcendental Meditation and the TM-Sidhi Programme, morning and evening together in one place, is sufficient to neutralize negative tendencies and promote positive trends throughout the whole population. More about this here:

Axelrod says if you play nice around 10% of the time you will change the effect of the game, but there's still a chance that the opponent will retaliate. What would happen with a large enough group creating a coherent field and playing this game? Possibly that the thought of hostile action on the part of the opponent would never even arise. I'd love to see a segment that explores this...thanks for all your great programs. Best wishes, D. Sosin

May. 29 2011 12:36 PM
Julia Nemeth

Today's episode began with a striking quote about the violence of nature... I'd like to see it in written. Could someone post it? Thanks, Julia

Apr. 11 2011 11:55 PM
SEA7 from New York, NY

An elegant and entertaining explanation of the logic of cooperation and societal cohesion.

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley

Apr. 08 2011 09:31 AM

I enjoyed your program exploring the "Prisoner's Dilemma." Here's a version that I adapted for use in the classroom. A great tool to explore decision-making and communications.

Apr. 07 2011 12:03 AM

pavel, the closing song is arena by suuns

Apr. 02 2011 07:45 PM
Fern from Georgia

When you help your friends and others close to you (people in your ethnic group, culture, whatever), you also indirectly help spread your genes as those individuals are more likely to care for your relatives. It seems to come naturally and doesn't have to be judged as either right or wrong.

And what about the altruistic behavior we see when people are willing to donate their money and or time to help people hit by a natural disaster in another country? Or the sacrifice soldiers make to fight for their country?

Mar. 09 2011 03:31 PM
Erik from Lincoln, NE

I really appreciate the show and the podcasts. But I'd just like to point out one problem I have. I understand that you need a bit of cash to support the costs of keeping the site up; hence the support of Pro-Flowers. Can I just point out that when ExxonMobile supports NOVA, they don't stop several times in the middle of the show to promote a Gas sale. . .

Dec. 20 2010 02:25 PM
pavel from Brooklyn, NY

What song closes out the show? I really liked it, but have no idea what it is.

Dec. 20 2010 10:18 AM

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