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Game Theory and the Evolution of Compassion

In this TED talk, Robert Wright explained how the evolution of compassion, or in other words, our decisions on whether to deploy golden rules or not, are influenced by game theory and the evolution of global networks.

From his point of view, compassion first happen through kin selection, which is driven by gene and eventually lead to a mutual beneficial relationship within genetically connected groups, namely, family. Wright termed this as “a gene’s way of helping itself”, which is the earliest Darwinian rationale of compassion.

In addition to kin selected compassion, which is usually limited to family members only, he also mentioned “reciprocal altruism”, which is another kind of compassion that motivates people to “do good things for people who then will return the favor”. Reciprocal altruism broadened the range of compassion from family to friends and allies, but it’s still not a universal thing. We naturally exclude some people from those we are inclined to deploy golden rule, and here is where game theory and global networks come into play.

In terms of zero-sum and non-zero-sum games we learned in class, for those who we defined as friends and allies, we are usually in a non-zero-sum game with them. For example, my friends and I are applying for a hackathon hold by Harvard University as a team, and the admission decisions are all-or-none, so the payoffs for us are the same for every possible outcome, and adding them up gives me a non-zero number. On the contrary, for those we defined as enemies or rivals, we are usually in a zero-sum game with them, such as the matching pennies game mentioned in the textbook, where adding up the payoffs yields zero.

As stated by Wright, compassion and the golden rule are mostly deployed to non-zero-sum relationships. This is reasonable, because people always want to maximize their own payoff, but this is also frustrating, because the lack of compassion in zero-sum channels leads to a lot of conflicts and troubles in the world, such as war, discriminations, or even genocide.

Fortunately, things are getting better and better thanks to the rapid technology development. Especially the transportation and communication technology, which is connecting the originally separated components of the global network, and producing more and more non-zero sum relationships between people all around the world, which enables compassion and the golden rule to flourish.

I think this article provides a new perspective for us to think about game theory. Besides economics, international relations and politics, humanity and biology also have interactions with game theory, which might be the key point of resolving conflicts and spreading love and peace.

I also like Wright’s idea about the influences of globalization on compassion, which makes me reconsider the relationship between graph theory and game theory. I originally regarded them as two separated parts that concentrating on totally different issues, but his analysis inspired my interest to further explore the potential impacts of graphical structures on game strategies and payoffs for a group of players.




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