Ethics – Karma – Social Reinforcement

Friday, May 8th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week we mentioned the prisoners dilemma a simple system built to model a non zero sum game, we compared the total number of points scored by all players combined to the karma in the system. Cooperation increased the total number of points available, even if a larger absolute number of points could be gained for a given individual player by defecting.

In the penultimate chapter of The Selfish Gene, entitled “Nice Guys Finish First”, Richard Dawkins discuses the ways in which evolution, through simple selfish Darwinian selection, can still evolve cooperation. There is a BBC Documentry of the same name based on the chapter.

In it, Dawkins explains that in order to evolve cooperation, a system must satisfy three conditions: The interaction must be repeated, so that the same individuals are likely to interact again. They must be able to recognise the partners they are interacting with and they must be able to remember how their partner interacted last time.

Iterated Prisoners Dilemma

The first of these keys to the evolution of cooperation is that the game must be played more than once, ideally repeated over and over again indefinitely. If the game is played over and over again a host of new strategies open up. Rather than just “cooperate” or “defect” a player can do something more like “Defect on each alternate go and cooperate otherwise” or “Cooperate 3 times then defect”. This widening of the strategic field is essential to evolving a cooperative strategy, for simply “cooperate” OR simply “defect” are not complicated enough. Repeating the game changes it’s nature, rather than a simple prisoners dilemma game, it becomes the iterated prisoners dilemma.


The next essential element is that each player must be able to remember the results of previous iterations. Without the ability to remember the past, strategy can’t change depending on previous actions and we’re back to the simple game, with just “cooperate” or “defect”, perhaps with a random component. Even to implement “cooperate every other time” we need to remember which round we’re on, what we did last time.


Finally, Dawkins shows that the players must be able to recognise their partner in the game. To link their memory of the game to the particular individual they last played with. To remember, essentially, whether the individual they are playing against cooperated or defected on the last few iterations.

When all three of these conditions are present in an evolutionary system, the system becomes complicated enough that it can evolve ways to spread the advantage of an increase system-wide karma to all the agents in that system. Strategies can evolve to encourage cooperation so that the group, and each individual within it, can take advantage of group effort.


In the 1980s, Robert Axelrod hosted a computerized tournament of strategies which met these criteria. Computer programs were submitted which implemented a given strategy, and each program given the opportunity to compete over many rounds with all the other strategies.

The winning strategy, known as ‘tit for tat’, is very simple: Cooperate on the first move, then afterwards copy the move your partner made.

The strategy ‘punishes’ a player for defecting. The more they defect, the more Tit For Tat will defect back at them. Suddenly, in an environment of tit for tat players that you expect to meet again and again, the best strategy is to cooperate rather than defect.

Human Beings

Of course, actual creatures don’t have to consciously understand this data in order to cooperate. They just need to be built by evolution to instinctively cooperate, and punish defectors. It’s this evolution which has given us social emotions which make us so urgently feel injustice, feel such hatred against cheaters and criminals. They make us love those who have helped us, and want to repay the debt of kindness. They give us pride in our reputation, and instinctive ways to judge another’s reputation based on interactions with them and others they have interacted with.

Social Emotions

Karma, understood properly, is a measure of how much cooperation there is in society, a measure of the good in your community. Your own personal rewards are of course partially determined by this, and partially by your own actions.

If you lived in a community of cooperators, people who helped regardless of your reputation and your previous action, you could indeed defect and so gain personally at the expense of the society in which you live and the people with whom you interact. However, over time, this would cause damage to the society that supported you and discourage cooperation throughout. Those cooperating linages would die out. Your selfish strategy would cease to work. Each member of the species would suffer, without a bedrock of kindness to exploit.

This is not the world in which you live though. You are not in a community of mindless cooperators. You live in a world where you have friends, a reputation, enemies. A world in which people sacrifice their own gain in the name of punishing criminals, in the name of justice and honesty.

This is why the naive interpretation of ‘karma’, that people who do good are rewarded, are luckier, still holds some truth: Those who treat others well will indeed be better off than those who don’t. Nice people have nicer friends. Helpful people are more likely to be helped. Even the nicest people, even family, rightly have limits, They will eventually punish defection.

This is the essential point: You live in a society which rewards altruism, you have evolved in an environment which is made up, primarily, of other people who reward cooperation and punish defection. Each person doesn’t usually consciously spread gossip and information in order to assure that “you’ll never work in this town again,” full social exclusion is rare. However, people will pick up on each other’s tells, they’ll notice reticence in interactions, suspicion, reluctance. Your reputation, like it or not, follows you everywhere. There is much to gain from being a good person, most notably, good friends.

Of course, you can try to hide the truth about yourself. Hope you’ll get away with cultivating friendships without cooperation. Hope to cleverly take advantage of everyone you meet. Next week we’ll discuss how even defections which nobody but you know about can nevertheless have a negative influence on your life.