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Research explores how we can change the behaviour of our groups

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A fundamental part of being a sense and respond organization is the ability for change to occur from throughout the organization.  Suffice to say however, few have really achieved that hallowed place, with most change projects still requiring an executive sponsor to help disseminate things widely.

A new study should therefore be of interest to any change agents, as it identifies how we can each influence those around us, especially when it comes to collaborative behaviour, although it is at pains to highlight the limits of our influence.

Central to the research was the prisoner’s dilemma used to test game theory.  Robert Axelrod proved a few years ago that the optimum strategy for the game was tit-for-tat, whereby cooperation is assumed until the other player proves they can’t be trusted.

This theory was expanded upon a few years ago when researchers proposed a zero-determinant strategy.  This suggests that players can actually influence their opponent by virtue of their own playing style.  If they play generously or unfairly for instance.

The team, from the Max Plank Institute, wanted to test this theory out, not only in 2 player situations but in ones containing multiple participants.

“Using game theory, pressing problems of our time, such as the avoidance of climate change, can be understood as social dilemmas involving multiple players,” the researchers explain. “Many people have the feeling that they cannot achieve anything as individuals. However, they underestimate the possibilities available to them.”

The researchers showed that strategies that were successful in two player games, also scaled up into multi player environments.  In other words, they believe that an individual can control how they will gain from a situation just as well in a group as in a smaller setting.

So, for instance, if you decide that you want to collaborate with others, and subsequently punish those who don’t, then the research suggests that your payoff for such an approach will be the mean of all people in your group.  By being social and collaborative, this benefits the group, which in turn benefits you individually.

“What interested us most, however, was how the individual can contribute to the development of stable cooperation within the group,” the researchers say.

The researchers discovered that they could calculate the strategies that would promote cooperation and collaboration with mathematical precision.

According to their findings, individual players should act generously in principle to avoid ending up in a spiral of refusal when another has acted badly once – possibly due to a misunderstanding. On the other hand, individual players should not be too generous either and should consistently punish egoistic behavior.

The more players that are involved in the process, the greater the role of alliances to ensure strategies are consistent throughout the group.  Of course, the researchers are at pains to point out that alliances do not always form for the greater good, and caution against the risk of the collective taking on nefarious ambitions.

“There are no limits to extortion when sufficient numbers cooperate,” notes Traulsen, explaining the result of the model. Yet even this phenomenon can have a positive effect, as this group prompts the others to behave socially. As a result – according to the model – it can generate a positive group dynamic among the outsiders and promote cooperation to some extent.

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