New take on game theory offers clues on why we cooperate

Alexander J Stewart at The Conversation: “Why do people cooperate? This isn’t a question anyone seriously asks. The answer is obvious: we cooperate because doing so is usually synergistic. It creates more benefit for less cost and makes our lives easier and better.
Maybe it’s better to ask why don’t people always cooperate. But the answer here seems obvious too. We don’t do so if we think we can get away with it. If we can save ourselves the effort of working with someone else but still gain the benefits of others’ cooperation. And, perhaps, we withhold cooperation as punishment for others’ past refusal to collaborate with us.
Since there are good reasons to cooperate – and good reasons not to do so – we are left with a question without an obvious answer: under what conditions will people cooperate?
Despite its seeming simplicity, this question is very complicated, from both a theoretical and an experimental point of view. The answer matters a great deal to anyone trying to create an environment that fosters cooperation, from corporate managers and government bureaucrats to parents of unruly siblings.
New research into game theory I’ve conducted with Joshua Plotkin offers some answers – but raises a lot of questions of its own too.
Traditionally, research into game theory – the study of strategic decision making – focused either on whether a rational player should cooperate in a one-off interaction or on looking for the “winning solutions” that allow an individual who wants to cooperate make the best decisions across repeated interactions.
Our more recent inquiries aim to understand the subtle dynamics of behavioral change when there are an infinite number of potential strategies (much like life) and the game payoffs are constantly shifting (also much like life).
By investigating this in more detail, we can better learn how to incentivize people to cooperate – whether by setting the allowance we give kids for doing chores, by rewarding teamwork in school and at work or even by how we tax to pay for public benefits such as healthcare and education.
What emerges from our studies is a complex and fascinating picture: the amount of cooperation we see in large groups is in constant flux, and incentives that mean well can inadvertently lead to less rather than more cooperative behavior….(More)”