🧠 The Game Theory of “Let me know how I can be helpful” by Dan Stern

What Tit-for-tat strategies employed by monkeys and bats teaches us about kindness in the Silicon Valley

Yo! ✌️ I’m Brett! I am a founder and former Cognitive Science researcher. Social Studies is a semi-weekly newsletter for people building great products for humans. It includes recaps of what happened on Tech Twitter every week plus deep analysis using frameworks from Psychology, Economics, and the other Social Sciences.


🤔 Who is Dan Stern? Dan is a technologist and writer exploring the intersection of social sciences and technology through his self-titled blog. I thought he would be an incredible guest to have on Social Studies, so here he is!

🧠 The Game Theory of “Let me know if I can be helpful” by Dan Stern

🐒 How Tit-for-Tat evolved, and how it works - Tit-for-tat is a strategy of cooperation - being kind in hope that it will be reciprocated. It can be seen all across the animal kingdom in bats, monkeys, and of course, humans.

🤖 The operating system of Tech - Tit-for-Tat powers Silicon Valley. Since anyone could be the next Bezos or Sheryl Sandberg, it’s optimal to “be helpful” to everyone you can.

⚖️ How could it be any other way? - There are other strategies but Tit-for-Tat remains optimal when animals engage in non-zero sum games over a long time period (e.g. careers).

🤔 Who is Dan Stern?

The tagline of Dan Stern’s blog should make it clear why I’m so excited to have him as a guest writer on Social Studies - “Ancient foundations for creating the future”

Simply put, Dan is obsessed with applying classic disciplines like game theory or evolutionary biology to modern tech industry challenges. Reading through some of his most popular essays Out of the Interface, Back To the Frontier and Rediscovering and Using Ancient Ideas, you get the message: 

First principles for life and business are derived from first principles in (social) science.

Here’s an amazing guest post from Dan talking about two of the most crucial subject areas for anyone in tech to understand: Game Theory and Biology.

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The Tech industry is known for its kindness and almost comical pay-it-forward attitude.  After all, your strange coworker could be the next Mark Zuckerberg.  At first glance, this seems weird; why do people act like this?   

But look at the industry through the lens of human evolution and game theory.  Our underlying behavior when interacting with fellow humans has evolved over millions of years.  Humans are successful because these foundations work.  And the tech industry has created enormous success by building on top of these evolutionary foundations better than any other industry.  

This core operating system that Tech borrowed from Evolution is called Tit-for-Tat.

Colloquially, Tit-for-Tat refers to retaliation.  But it’s actually a strategy for cooperation.

Tit-for-Tat describes a strategy of first cooperating, then reciprocating your opponents’ moves. I’ll never stab you in the back as long as you play nice with me. But you can’t take advantage of my “niceness” for long; the first time you do, good luck getting my help again.  

The Tit-for-Tat strategy offered our ancestors a simple way out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  It bootstraps the initial mechanism of long-term trust needed for the survival of small groups.  This strategy enabled our ancestors to tradeoff individual short-term gains for long-term group benefit.  Tit-for-Tat promoted group selection in humans and created the pillars of cultural evolution; our ancestors used this strategy to reliably join forces and advance mutually beneficial cooperation.

In this essay, we’ll dive into:

  1. How a Tit-for-Tat strategy evolved in humans and other animals and how it works 

  2. How we see this operating strategy of Tit-for-Tat play out in modern society, specifically in Tech

  3. Why it outperforms other strategies

Let’s go!

🐒 How Tit-for-Tat evolved, and how it works

Think of it this way: evolution tests out a few organisms that cooperate with each other rather than kill each other over scarce resources. This behavior is known as reciprocal altruism. If organisms meet often enough in the future, they start to develop stakes in each other’s success.  

In the book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, scientist Robert Axelrod further explains how this strategy evolved:

A few TIT FOR TAT individuals arise…..so long as [they] meet one another often enough to have a stake in future encounters, they will start to form little pockets of cooperation. And once that happens, they will perform far better than the knife-in-the-back types around them.

Their numbers will therefore increase... TIT FOR TAT-style cooperation will eventually take over…..if less-cooperative types try to invade and exploit their niceness, TIT FOR TAT’s policy of toughness will punish them so severely that they cannot spread.

Here’s a scene of our Ice Age ancestors: I killed some Woolly Mammoth this afternoon and gave it to my friend Brett. It’s always winter after all, and I could tell he was starving. A few weeks later, after I ran out of my Mammoth stockpile, Brett shared his tasty Saber Tooth Tiger with me.  Cooperation here kept us both alive.  Meanwhile, backstabbing Joe, who stole some of your tiger stash and hoarded his elk, died a slow death when the animals left and no one shared their reserves with him. This is now culture!  

We can see this exact survival strategy modeled for other animals like vampire bats and vervet monkeys.

A 2017 paper in Biology Letters aptly names Social hedging in vampire bats, the authors argued that:

When partner availability is unpredictable, a better strategy would diversify cooperative investments across more partners to reduce the potential costs of losing a key partnership. We call this strategy social bet-hedging. Like other forms of bet-hedging, this strategy can be advantageous even if it reduces average short-term return

Researchers observed these bats sharing their food with hungry non-kin members, expecting long-term gain for the short-term loss. Interestingly, while most bats engaged in strict Tit-for-Tat, snubbing “friends” who had refused to share food with them before, others decided to forgive these “exploiters”, planning for reciprocal altruism benefits over a long time period.  

This Tit-for-Tat strategy contributed to the evolution of cooperation and group selection amongst these bats, as well as other animals like vervet monkeys and birds. We still find it operating at the core of human interaction today.   

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🤖 The operating system of Tech

The tech industry in particular understands these evolutionary dynamics.  Startup employees, founders and investors tradeoff short-term gain through extreme cooperation with the promise of long-term payoffs years down the road through the creation of something new.  Tit-for-Tat powers Silicon Valley. It works because of initial trust; when we see investors or founders betray that trust, they get banished from the tribe.   

This means the “How can I be Helpful?” meme is real - it gives us a glimpse into the actual operating system of the industry!  

Anyone could be the next Bezos or Sheryl Sandberg. No one in Tech wants to be the first person who crossed the superstar founder of the future. 

Because of this, some of the largest and most successful companies and software products in the world operate on top of the Tit-for-Tat strategy.  

🧧 Twitter and Gift Culture

Take Twitter, for example. There’s an entire ecosystem of people cooperating and learning from each other in the Twittersphere. Personally, I’ve made new friends, launched a website, and landed my current job, all because of Twitter cooperation. Creators, businesses, and writers thrive on Twitter. The only catch: as long as they cooperate.

As soon as you stop cooperating (on Twitter, this takes the form of being nasty, annoying, asking without first giving, or demanding attention of others) you find yourself as an outcast.  Just like our ancestor Joe, the exploitive and uncooperative Tweeter loses the benefits of group access.  

Alex Danco has written about this cooperation strategy on Twitter: in Homesteading the Twittersphere, he describes how creators benefit from sharing unique ideas and niches with others for free, even if the immediate benefits remain unclear.  He refers to it as gift culture, quoting:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance.They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.

Mike Solana’s tweet on ascending the social ladder encapsulates this idea of gift culture too:

Gift culture pushes Tit-for-Tat strategy to the limits by cooperating even before we know where we’ll benefit. Creators offer up their expertise with each other for free, expecting big, yet unknown, payoffs in the near future.   

This “gift culture” perhaps provides us a glimpse into the future of how tech products and companies will design mechanisms to enable the conditions for Tit-for-Tat strategies to emerge.  

Companies and products that consciously establish feedback loops where the ability for individuals to capture enormous upside in the form of:

  • Status 

  • Money

  • Friends 

Via extreme cooperation, and punishing those who deviate, will succeed by harnessing our fundamental Tit-for-Tat operating system. 

💻 Tech Products

We also see Tit-for-Tat codified directly into software products.  Think of work management solutions, like Asana, the successful productivity and project management software. 

Asana wins when individuals marry their own tactical tasks to the bigger project goals of the group. The product optimizes for extreme cooperation.  If even one member of the team fails to cooperate effectively in Asana (by tracking their tasks, notes, and feedback in areas Asana cannot capture), the entire workflow breaks down and the value of Asana’s product plummets.  

We can see this subconscious codification of Tit-for-Tat in other work management software products like Monday.com, Smartsheet, or Jira.  

⚖️ How could it be any other way?

Game theory categorizes Tit-for-Tat as a trigger strategy; an animal employing a trigger strategy initially cooperates, but punishes exploiters with varying degrees of severity.

Two other common trigger strategies include Tit-for-Two-Tats and Grim Trigger.   Tit-for-Two-Tats is more forgiving; an individual has to be exploited twice before they retaliate (as you recall, some vampire bats employ this strategy). Grim Trigger players pass harsher sentences; cross them once and they’ll NEVER cooperate again. I recommend exploring this excellent simulation to visualize how these strategies fare against our Tit-for-Tat strategy.  

If we take these three strategies head to head, all things equal, the Tit-for-Two-Tats strategy emerges as the most successful because it takes miscommunication into account. If you exploit me by accident or make a mistake, I’ll still cooperate again, allowing the interests of the group to forge ahead.  

So why didn’t Tit-for-Two-Tats become the core operating system?  

In harsher and aggressive environments, Tit-for-tat can be easily exploited and stifle group cooperation, even in the long run. 

One last critical consideration: Tit-for-Tat remains the optimal strategy when animals (and us!) engage in non-zero sum games over a long time period. Zero-sum environments will incentivize self-interest over group interest, and a short time period magnifies the low short-term returns of Tit-for-Tat.  

Paradoxically, Tit-for-Tat has enabled humans to participate in these long-term, non-zero sum games.  Of course, such as building the thriving ecosystem of Silicon Valley that now transcends geography.  The importance of this is hard to overstate. 

The stronger we encode the Tit-for-Tat strategy in the fundamental levels of our creations, the brighter the future we’ll have as humans.  

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🙏 Thanks

Thanks for reading yall!

Here’s a TikTok from Turner Novak impersonating an out-of-touch VC utilizing the negative version of Tit-for-tat.