Disarmament Insight


Monday, 10 December 2007

Defection Denial

One of the themes the DHA project has explored over the past two years is how cooperation emerges in multilateral negotiating environments. One of the challenges in informal social exchange in these situations involves judging others and deciding who is trustworthy and who’s not – in game theory terms this would mean discerning the difference between a cooperator and a defector. We would expect known defectors to be punished for their infractions. But recent research suggests this is not how humans normally react in everyday situations. Instead, we tend to overlook or “forgive” the wrongs others commit.

In fact, as University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough told the New York Times recently:

“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures… We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”
One recent study used a simple investment game, where two people decide whether or not (and how much) to contribute to a shared investment pool, to explore this phenomenon. In this version of the game, one player could “cut off” their opponent if they believed his/her contributions were too low. The study revealed that once players were in a pattern of mutual trust based on repeated adequate donations to the investment pool, it became harder to punish future infractions. Some players would tolerate four to five selfish moves by a “trusted” opponent before cutting them off whereas they would tolerate only one infraction from a stranger. The researchers interpreted this result to be rooted in denial – players believed “trusted” opponents had to be making errors, not simply trying to maximize their personal gains.

Simulating this result through many generations on a computer revealed that this denial strategy was critical to the stability and evolutionary fitness of the overall group. In other words, overlooking or forgiving defection was an important survival strategy. This corresponds with Karl Sigmund and Martin Nowak’s findings of their evolutionary computer tournament, run in 1991. The most successful strategy was generous tit-for-tat (GTFT). GTFT is a “nice” strategy meaning it was never the first to defect, even if defection was its opponent’s first move. GTFT also randomly cooperated once for approximately every three defections against it. In this simulation, as it seems in real-life, it pays to let bygones be bygones.

Psychologists suggest that denial could be important in protecting us against unbearable news and that this ability is critical to forming (and maintaining) close relationships. Moral violations are glossed over as “stumbles or lapses in competence,” making the original violation more bearable. Since people oftentimes aren’t as trustworthy as we assume them to be, this attitude allows us to overlook potentially devastating defections in everyday life and carry on as normal, nurturing close relationships despite a few wrongs here and there.

Ashley Thornton

Photo retrieved from flickr.com.
Denial Makes the World go Round,” New York Times, 20 November 2007.