The One Simple Rule To Guide All Of Your Relationships
By Elana Miller, MD: Zen Psychiatry
Imagine the following:
You and a friend are arrested for a crime. You are taken to separate rooms to be questioned. The detective offers you a choice: turn your friend in and get a short sentence, or stay silent and get a long one.
However, in the other room, your friend is offered the same choice. If both you and your friend stay silent, the detective will not have enough evidence to prosecute either of you and you will both go free. On the other hand, if you each rat on the other, you will both go to jail—but only for a short sentence.
What do you do? Do you Cooperate and stay silent, trusting that your friend will do the same and you will both go free, but risking that she will turn you in and you will get a long sentence? Or do you Compete and turn your friend in, hedging that she may turn you in, too, and protecting yourself from a long jail sentence if she does?
Now imagine this is a game you play repeatedly; in each round you have the opportunity to Cooperate or Compete based on your knowledge of your past interactions. How would you play? What do you think is the best way to win?
Every day we face similar decisions in our interpersonal relationships. We live in a world where there is limited and imperfect information, and can either give others the benefit of the doubt and risk being taken advantage of, or hedge against bad behavior, protecting ourselves but closing ourselves off to the numerous benefits of a trusting relationship. Is it possible to balance these two opposing forces? Can we remain open without getting walked all over?
In the 1980s an algorithm for the above scenario, called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, was introduced in competition and soared above all other strategies. It was elegant in its simplicity and brilliant in its clarity.
It was called Tit for Tat with One Forgive, and it is summarized in the following:
- Always start by Cooperating.
- If the other person Cooperates, you Cooperate.
- If the other person Competes, you Compete.
- The first time a person Competes, you forgive them.
Oh, the transparency! Yes, our relationships are complex, but how we deal with conflict doesn’t have to be. In fact, the more clear and simple you are in communicating what you want, the more likely you are to get it.
In other words: Assume the best, because the better you think of others the better they will be for you. If or when someone demonstrates to you they are not trustworthy, don’t trust them so much. But—forgive easily. Create space for mistakes because we are all human and we all make them.
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