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Super-cooperators and Game Theory

Geoff Riley

19th May 2011

It was a delight to hear Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield at the RSA last night when they delivered a presentation on aspects of their new book Supercooperators - The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour. The video of the presentation is now available below</p><p>Martin Nowak is a celebrated Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University and his strong presentation was a model of clarity and insight drawing heavily on the classic Prisoners' Dilemma as the basis for a discussion on the importance of direct and indirect repciprocity as the basis for co-opertaive behaviour between humans. He was joined by Roger Highfield, Editor of the New Scientist.

Direct reciprocity - “I help you, you help me", “I scratch your back and you scratch mine"

Indirect reciprocity - “I help you, someone helps me", “I scratch your back and somebody will scratch mine."

Nowak argues that there are three pillars of evolution - namely mutation, selection and cooperation. I will work through his book in the next couple of weeks but I came away appreciating more about the costs and benefits of cooperative behaviour and its applications in the fields of politics, tackling climate change, cooperation between competing businesses in the field of research and between millions of individuals in a decentralised and globally connected economy.

Cooperation can lead to good outcomes but good outcomes require cooperation. And Nowak has studied the biological processes that can bring about co-operative behaviour person to person, within groups and between them.

A large slice of the book hinges on deep analysis of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Nowak took us through a chronology of the work of mathematicians in developing strategies in game theory and the importance of reputation, trust, and the relative benefits of co-operation compared to the costs of defection in creating incentives and outcomes in repeated games that leave both participants better off.

Telegraph: Martin Nowak: a helping hand for evolution

Roger Highfield (Telegraph): The truth about our not so selfish genes

New Scientist: The mathematics of being nice

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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