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Bruce Holland

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Was Jesus Wrong?

In recent Snippets, I've discussed the idea that the complexity we see in the world results from individuals following simple rules. Stephen Wolfram says the same thing in A New Kind Of Science: simple programs produce great complexity. This idea explains why one person doing certain things consistently will, over time, end up much more successful than someone else doing only slightly different things.

It seems we are wired to notice exquisitely tiny differences between people. For example a person who holds a handshake a fraction longer than someone else is seen to be friendlier.

So what are the rules to follow for success?

Jesus taught us the Golden Rule: do unto others as you wish them to do unto you and if they do you wrong, turn the other cheek. People like Gandhi and Mandela have shown the power of this rule. However until the last few years it was not possible to test whether or not it was the best rule in the long term. Today computers using game theory can model hundreds of iterations of various rules to see which is the best.

Robert Axelrod an American political scientist believes he has proved Jesus wrong.

Axelrod examined one simple question: When should an individual cooperate, and when should an individual be selfish in an ongoing interaction with another person? In an inspired move, Axelrod decided to run a Computer Prisoner's Dilemma Tournament and invited experts in economics, psychology, sociology, politics, mathematics and biology to submit programs for the most effective long-term strategy. He chose sixty-two entrants as finalists, running their programs randomly against each other, and he discovered to his surprise that the one which won was the simplest strategy of all.

Axelrod called the programme tit for tat. It had only two rules:

  1. On the first move, cooperate

  2. On each succeeding move do what your opponent did on the previous move.

In practice what this means is a rule in which you are never the first to defect; but in which you retaliate after your opponent has defected; and that you forgive that opponent after one act of retaliation. Axelrod says Tit For Tat invites reciprocity and provides the ideal mechanism for ensuring that you get it. Tit For Tat is altruism with teeth. A program that works because it carries a big stick. And it goes on working because it also forgives, recognising and rewarding acts of remorse. He says it all sounds impossibly high-principled, but the very real beauty and strength of the program is that it carries the seeds of its own success. It is self-realising. An automatic process that leads inexorably to distinct goals, rewarding good acts and creating good out of evil.

While this research is interesting, I have my doubts about whether it's right. Personally I do not intend to use Tit For Tat. I will continue trying to live the Golden Rule not because I�m idealistic or altruistic but because it makes me feel strong. It makes me feel upright and I doubt whether the computer can model the way I feel. If people wrong me I may choose not to work with them, but I will try not to hit back.

I am really interested in your views on this. what do you think? What about the whole idea that complex behaviour comes from following simple rules? What do you think the rules should be?

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Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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