‘Tit for Tat’ — A Way of Life?

A week ago in class I was introduced to the work of Robert Axelrod, namely his Evolution of Cooperation. Although it might seem paradoxical given the name of the long-term winning strategy in his ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ experiments (Tit for Tat), this strategy, if replicated in daily interactions, can produce more peaceful and sustainable relationships. Here are the basic principles — framed in my terms:

1) Be Nice

This is pretty straightforward and obvious. It helps to be nice to others as it tends to lessen the amount and degree of negative interactions and increase the positive. In this context it means to not start trouble (more so than to smile at people, give compliments, etc.). Nice does not mean pushover — as we will see in the next principle.

2) Be Provocable

This does not contradict #1. Think of it in terms of self-defense. If someone starts trouble with you, defend yourself proportionally. This could mean that if someone was supposed to show up at 6 p.m. for dinner but showed up at 6:30 without a legitimate excuse, you could respond by asking them to pay for your appetizer. Or let’s say your roommate borrows your favorite shirt and returns it with a stain that cannot be removed — you could ask him to buy you a new shirt, or you could refuse to let him borrow any of your clothes again. If someone insults you verbally, you can insult them equally (this might sound harsh, but the 4 principles must work in tandem for the overall strategy to work. Numbers 3 and 4 will serve to alleviate the tension).

3) Be Forgiving

This could also be translated from the experiments as ‘be fair,’ but to me the concept of fairness is more complicated than forgiveness. Either way, the idea is to not press the advantage. If you have the upper-hand, forgive instead of becoming bitter or vengeful. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn once I started building my assertiveness over the past two years. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain relationships of any kind of you are too hard on people and not willing to let small things (and even big things!) go. Accept people’s apologies and believe that they are sincere — but at the same time hold them accountable when they slip up (see #2).

4) Be Clear

Transparency and clarity, far from being a weakness, can actually be a major strength. Sometimes entire relationships are based on misconceptions that could have been avoided with one honest conversation in the beginning. It doesn’t always have to be positive either. You can be clear about the things you can’t stand, and then feel a lot more justified in practicing #2. I sometimes tell people that I can’t handle flakiness. Sometimes I never hear from them again afterward — but if I couldn’t handle them anyway, it’s probably for the best.

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2 Comments

  1. Patty Courtney said,

    November 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Big Smile!

  2. Cay said,

    December 3, 2012 at 11:33 am

    ah, the fine line between aggressiveness and accountability! my belief? first the parties involved each need to be capable of maturely accepting responsibility, thinking less in terms of blame or fault. or, i.e., we must all humble ourselves, accepting not just what we ourselves see as our role in a difficult situation, but what others see as our role, and even our failings, in those situations.


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