When tit-for-tat is self-defeating

(Graphic: John McCann)

(Graphic: John McCann)

BODY LANGUAGE

Game theory is the study of working out, mathematically, what strategies to use in competitive situations, which can be anything from a football match to a global nuclear war.

One of the simplest and most effective strategies is called tit-for-tat. It works as follows:

• You begin by assuming that everyone is acting in good faith and will fulfil their obligations. And you do the same.

• If someone goes back on their word then you refuse to co-operate with them in future and may even punish them, given the chance.

• But, if they later make restitution (undoing the damage caused by their betrayal) then the strategy resets and you go back to co-operating with them.

The strategy is useful in situations where lots of “players” need to decide whether to co-operate or not, because it allows one to benefit from co-operation while punishing liars and cheats.

But to me the really interesting thing about tit-for-tat is that you don’t need a degree in mathematics to use it.
Humanity seems to have a hard-wired understanding of it, and bias towards it.

If someone cuts us off in traffic and we see an opportunity to “punish” them, we will often take it. When someone defrauds us in a business deal then we will not deal with them again, no matter how favourable the circumstances, and even thinking about doing so feels irrational. But those who deal fairly will be given the benefit of the doubt again and again, provided they continue to be fair.

Even young children on a playground understand that playing together is more effective and enjoyable than playing apart (and that if someone betrays you, then they are dead to you).

But the problem with many of the evolved ways of thinking that our brains use is that they’re not very smart. If a loved one lets us down we may enthusiastically punish them for it, even if it was not actually their fault. If a friend of ours has a bad breakup we will probably take their side and despise their “ex” even if no one was to blame. Humans are social animals. If you hurt a member of the tribe then you hurt each other member.

What this boils down to on an individual level is that each of us has a library of opinions about things that are entirely emotional.

Had a bad experience with one employee, at the local branch of a bank? Well then, that branch, and every other branch in the chain, is haraam and will remain so until the day we die. Someone was a jerk to you in high school? Well then, she’s still a jerk, even though she has since been ordained as a minister and pulled a bag of puppies from a burning orphanage.

Cognitive psychology calls these “automatic thoughts”, and as long as they remain unexamined they persist and we behave as if they’re accurate, even if they’re not. They affect everything people do, including how they handle depression.

Let us imagine a hypothetical bloke named Pubert. He has been battling with major depression for almost 10 years. Like many who sail in similar boats he has attempted dozens of different medications, treatments and therapies but none of them has given any meaningful relief.

How likely is it that Pubert will try out a new form of therapy when it becomes available? Or rather: How unlikely is it that he will try a therapy he has already attempted, even though it didn’t work the first time?

I have seen it in the eyes of my own therapy clients, and loved ones, when I suggested some new approach to healing that I really thought could help them: anger.

Anger at me for suggesting such a thing, for implying that they are not already doing everything that’s possible (even though it’s impossible that anyone could); An angry, agonised tat in payment for a tit that is no longer remembered, only felt.

Agreeing to therapy, or medication, or any treatment, has a cost. It requires time, it requires emotional energy, and it demands that we make ourselves vulnerable to the crushing disappointment of yet another failure; yet another reminder that we are broken and cannot be fixed.

If one were to consider a game-theoretic modelling of depression one might expect to find that the costs are too high and the chances of success too low to justify continued attempts at new therapies.

But most people don’t need such highfalutin’ mathematical snobbery. We simply know that trying new treatments hurt us in the past and that restitution has still not arrived; that in the part of us that is still fighting we would rather dish out tat, than be a tit.

So we stay as we are, surviving never thriving, even though the real enemy is inside our heads and the means to beat it are out in the world, where we can always be hurt anew.

Andrew Verrijdt is a psychologist

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