So why do we help each other? It defies logic. According to Dr Samuel Okashi, who was speaking at the Cafe Scientifique last night, if we were the rational, logical creatures we claim to be, then there would always be an advantage not to. The Prisoner Game, invented by the ‘autistic’ mathematician John Nash (depicted in the film by Russell Crowe), demonstrated that when you cannot trust your partner what to do, it is always better to defect, because the risk of collaborating when they don’t, could mean you end up with nothing and even if you both defect, you could at least end up with something. This makes logical sense to prisoners and psychopaths, who cannot trust. It also makes sense for governments. Look how difficult it is for states to agree on cutting carbon emissions. Powerful states with more to lose, defect, because if everybody else cuts emissions they will gain, even though the world will lose. How could you ever get them to collaborate?
Why should people who are inherently narcissistic and self interested, engage in co-operative altruistic behaviour? Is it just that we are social animals and as such have an inbuilt need to collaborate? Such behaviour is built into us from the beginning; it’s instinctive; the baby clings to the mother, the mother’s instinct is to care for her infant. Families stay together not just because there are distinct advantages for them to do so, but because there is a powerful emotional bond. People group themselves in tribes. There’s strength in numbers, but there’s also comfort, creativity and meaning. In a social unit, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No one person can do everything. By adopting different roles, they can work as a unit to achieve much more as long as they see advantage in doing so and there is discipline. And for that you need trust and leadership. Difficulties arise when you have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Our survival as a species is based on collaboration.
But we don’t collaborate with others just because we discern long term gains from such behaviour or because we avoid long term losses; we avoid being punished. No, I think it’s deeper than that. Our lives are built on meaning, the meaning that can only come from social interaction. Our brains are wired by making emotional connections; neuroscience shows that the more we engage with the people and world around us, the more our brains adapt to cope; the more we grow as individuals. It’s the way we form our identity. Defection leads to autism, depression, exclusion and in an evolutionary sense, extinction. Comparative research among primates indicate that the bigger the social group, the larger the size of the brain. The implication is that you need big brains to hold in mind the dynamics of so many relationships.
The key factor is trust. Relationships, societies are based on trust. Evolution assumes collaboration, at least for time enough to exchange genes but for social species collaboration must persist for much longer. Trust is the glue that bonds people into families, friendships and tribes. We have to know that at the end of the day, those whom we are bonded to by trust, will not abandon, mislead, exploit or betray us. We need to know we belong. Without trust we are like prisoners; always suspicious, watching our backs, making sure that others do not steal the advantage leaving us with nothing. Society disintegrates without trust.
The Prisoner Game is not the only game. There is another game for social animals and that is what my grandmother quaintly called courtship. Here the goal is conjunction, the creation of a lasting bond. In the edgy dance of courtship, each partner attempts to determine the sincerity of the other in all sorts of tests and tasks. ‘if you really loved me, you would do never be late, forget, let me down.’ The object is to build and establish the share mythology of absolute trust that will sustain the sufficiently to rear confident, trusting children while at the same time consolidating their place in the tribe. In the courtship game, there is only one win. The philanderer and seductress may achieve a short term gain, but it doesn’t last and both are the losers, gaining only disillusion and loneliness; lust, trust and bust!
The Prisoner Game is based on false assumptions. It assumes that human beings are purely logical, rational animals, who have no time for trust and only see personal advantage in relationships. It is rather similar to the corporate game in which representatives employ the skills of seduction, charm and persuasion, to gain an advantageous deal. Trust often doesn’t come into it; the best either partner can hope for is mutual advantage, bound by a written agreement, where law replaces trust. But in the corporate world too, aren’t the best agreements forged during a round of golf or over a drink or meal? The enjoyment of the game, the companionship, alcohol and food are ways executives still use to break down suspicion and promote trust, but increasingly such individuals are ‘protected’ by their PR companies. As societies have expanded, so they have developed ever more efficient systems to protect themselves from ‘messy’ emotions. You need more than the promise of good intentions if you are going to strike the best deal.
Are so called civilised human beings becoming more selfish and more suspicious? Do we trust less? And are we paying the price for this? Isn’t loneliness the major public health risk of our time? Hasn’t the birth rate declined – and the divorce rate gone up? Are we breeding a generation of mixed up, disenfranchised kids? Are we more split, more confrontational, more keen on our individual rights than building something together? Is it better to be right than be together? Is this the essence of our decline as a society? Can we do anything about it?
The driver game, in which drivers choose whether to drive on the left or the right, only works if the players can rely on each other to make the same choice. A partnership must be mutual, in marriage, friendship or even corporate relationships. If one partner does everything, if one partner is ambivalent, deceives, plays away, betrays, it doesn’t work. But collaboration requires energy (though not as much as suspicion) and as long as their basic needs are met, human beings are lazy.
So is this the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper?