The effectiveness of a Tit for Tat Strategy (Or Why it doesn’t pay-off to always be nice to Pakistan)

Robert Axelrod was an American Political Scientist, researcher and teacher at the University of Michigan (incidently, my alma mater ). In 1984, he published a book on the Evolution of Cooperation. The crux of this book is the Prisoner’s dilemma, a popular topic in game theory which Wikipedia describes as such:

The prisoner’s dilemma game (invented around 1950 by Merrill M. Flood and Melvin Dresher takes its name from the following scenario: you and a criminal associate have been busted. Fortunately for you, most of the evidence was shredded, so you are facing only a year in prison. But the prosecutor wants to nail someone, so he offers you a deal: if you squeal on your associate – which will result in his getting a five-year stretch – the prosecutor will see that six months is taken off of your sentence. Which sounds good, until you learn your associate is being offered the same deal – which would get you five years.

In order to test the best strategies to play this game in a two player setting, he invited professional game theorists to send in entries for a tournament where each entry would be a computer program which would face off against every other program in a round robin tournament. The winner of the tournament was decided as the program which would cumulatively get the most number of points. The winner of this tournament in the first round was also the simplest, the TIT for TAT strategy, It really meant the following:It starts with a cooperative choice and thereafter did what the other player did on the previous move. Hence, if the opponent cooperated, it would; otherwise, it would also defect.

The results of the first round were published and the strategies were made public. There was a second round conducted where the participants could submit any program, including any program submitted by another participant in the first round. No prizes for guessing, TIT for TAT won the second round too ! It also beat other versions which were more or less generous but were closely modeled to it.

This research of Axelrod is in use in multiple real life applications of game theory and he is involved in things as important as foreign relations and stopping nuclear wars. We had studied this subject in a course called Strategic Thinking and Decision making, taught by a visiting faculty, Prof. V.N. Bhattacharya in my business school. The clear message from TIT for TAT are as follows:

In a double player or multiplayer game, which is played infinitely, the best strategy is to

  1. Be nice
  2. Be retaliatory
  3. Be forgiving
  4. Be clear.

I believe that Tit for Tat is exactly what we should do with Pakistan when provoked. I make the following assumptions about the situation:

  1. Both India and Pakistan are rational players. For those who say that Pakistan is irrational in its behavior, I would counter that the opposite is true and in fact the people in power, either in politics or the armed forces or the terrorist social network are extremely rational and intelligent men. Just to prove a point, Pervez Mussharaf undertook defense studies in the United Kingdom with some Indian classmates and he was by far the best student in his class and wrote a brilliant Master’s thesis titled “Impact of Arm Race in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent”. 
  2. This is a game to be played infinitely. Lets face it, we are neighbors and have nowhere else to go.
  3. There are payoffs for cooperating (peace) and defecting (bloodshed). If one player cooperates  and the other defects, the defecting player still causes bloodshed. the only way to avoid bloodshed is if both cooperate for peace.
  4. Both have the ability to play the game of their own volition (which has been proved by the fact that none of the countries which Pakistan ran sobbing to stood by their corner recently).

Under these circumstance, it pays for India to adopt a Tit for Tat strategy. Cooperate with Pakistan if it shows similar initiatives for peace; hit it with equivalence if Pakistan shows signs of defecting and plays mischief. However, India should not respond with a stance of never budging (and hence I dont agree with Ram Madhav’s then “Jaw for tooth” argument) but should go back to cooperating if Pakistan also does. Remember; be nice, retaliate, be forgiving but by all means be clear of your strategy. This, in my opinion, is the only way to bring peace to the sub-continent.

I first wrote this piece in 2016 in the aftermath of the first surgical strikes and the situation has  changed considerably in the interim. 

  1. Pakistan is weaker than ever, with a terrible financial condition and decreased standing in the international community. I wonder, now than ever if the rationality clause I mentioned earlier holds sense. 
  2. At the same time, India’s standing in the international community seems to have received a shot in the arm as evidently seen from reactions around the world to our decision to abrogate Article 370. Pakistan’s attempts to internationalize the issue have largely failed with most countries preferring to adopt India’s (or a neutral) stance that Kashmir is purely an internal issue of India. 
  3. The 370 revoking itself will threaten peace in the region, at least in the short term in my opinion and I doubt if there will be any peace gestures from Pakistan anytime soon (Does the Kartarpur corridor count ? ) ; Cross border terror will only increase, if any.
  4. I am particularly curious about China’s stance in the whole issue; even they have largely made grunting noises but have stopped short at that. Is this a sign of their acknowledgement of India’s standing vis-a-vis theirs and their preference to rather focus on our shared borders, our maritime ambitions or trade ? 

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