Does Tit-For-Tat Prioritize the Gains of Others Over Those of the Self?

The essential feature of a tit-for-tat strategy is reciprocity – rewarding cooperation and punishing defection. In his book, “Born to be Good”, Dacher Keltner claims that “tit-for-tat instantiates the principle of cost-benefit reversal”. He argues that a set of mechanisms that reverse the cost-benefit analysis of giving is built into the human organism. He suggests: “These mechanisms might prioritize the gains of others over those of the self, and transform others’ gains into one’s own” (p. 71).

Keltner bases his claim that tit-for-tat involved cost-benefit reversal on three observations:

  • When cooperation is the default setting, tit-for-tat favours mutually beneficial cooperation.
  • Tit-for-tat is not envious – the strategy doesn’t change as a partner’s benefits mount.
  • Tit-for-tat is a forgiving strategy – cooperation is resumed following the first cooperative action of a defector.

It seems to me, however, that none of these features of tit-for-tat necessarily involves prioritizing the gains of others over those of the self. It is possible for a tit-for-tat strategy to be adopted purely out of self interest. Robert Axelrod recognised this in “The Evolution of Cooperation” (p 173-4) , in his discussion of the experiments that Keltner uses as the basis for his discussion of tit-for-tat.

A tit-for-tat strategy based on self-interest provides a plausible explanation for the emergence of cooperation among strangers who have no reason to trust each other. For example, consider a situation where strangers are considering the initiation of trade in the absence of third party (e.g. government) protection against opportunistic use of force and fraud. From the perspective of each party the possible outcomes would be: a) a potential gain from trade; b) a potential loss resulting from opportunism by the other party – i.e. theft of the goods offered for trade; c) a potential gain from opportunism – theft of goods offered for trade by the other party; d) a stand-off.

If trade occurs in this situation, is it likely to be because one party places higher priority on the potential gains to the other party than on the potential gains to the self? I think it is more likely to occur because both parties consider that, in view of the likely responses of each other, they have more to gain from a series of mutually beneficial exchanges that they would gain from attempting to steal from each other.

If both parties adopt a consistent tit-for-tat strategy, then trade is likely to continue and they may come to trust each other. It is possible to envisage that the relationship could even develop to a point where they each gain some satisfaction from the benefit that they bestow upon each other through the exchange of goods. But this trust and affection is the outgrowth of mutually beneficial cooperation rather than a pre-condition for it.

I don’t understand why Dacher Keltner seeks to denigrate those who see self interest as a motivating force (see: How high was Adam Smith’s jen ratio?) and seeks to eliminate self-interest from the evolution of social cooperation. Perhaps he identifies the self-interest motive with opportunism, greed and selfishness to such an extent that he cannot see that it is good to desire to avoid being a burden on others, to help family members and other loved ones, and to accumulate the means to contribute generously to worthwhile causes. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with the idea that an invisible hand involved in voluntary exchange processes could enable people to benefit from cooperation with each other without actually intending to benefit each other.

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