Joe Marchese

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The Prisoner's Dilemma

There is no limit to what you can accomplish, as long as you don't mind who gets the credit.

         -- Ronald Reagan (borrowed from Harry Truman)

But that's the real problem, isn't it.  Somehow, nobody busts their tail so that somebody else will get the recognition, or raise, or whatever.  Aren't you tired of Mr. or Ms. Big Shot getting all the credit while you get all the blame?  Tired of johnny-come-latelies jumping on the bandwagon of successful efforts to steal some of your glory?  Tired of the politics?

Now you can see how very easy it is to get swept up in an outlook that is the direct opposite of the sentiment expressed by the sign on Mr. Reagan's desk.  And judging by all that he was able to accomplish (whether or not you like what he accomplished), as unlikely an admirer as President Clinton and President-elect Obama have stated that Mr. Reagan deserves some consideration as a role model, and his approach worth copying.

To give further perspective on the matter, consider what psychologists call the Prisoner's Dilemma.  Imagine that you and your accomplice have been caught red-handed committing a robbery.  The police play divide-and-conquer by interrogating you separately.  Together your best hope is to cooperate by remaining silent:  Without hard evidence, the police have no case.  At worst, you would be facing lesser charges and might each get off with just a 30-day sentence.  But you can do better for yourself:  Double-cross your partner and you can cop a plea, either go free or face reduced penalties, while he serves 8 to 10 years.  The problem is, if you each betray the other, you'll both go to prison -- not for 30 days, but up to the limit of the law.

When you think about it rationally, you realize that no matter what your partner chooses, you are better off choosing betrayal.  Unfortunately, he is aware of it too -- so the tide of self-interest carries you both up the river for years.  If you only could have cooperated ...

Cooperation falls under the category I call religious issues:  you either believe in it or you don't.  This isn't a matter morality; it is trying to achieve the best possible outcome for everyone, including yourself.  I don't believe that such instances are best examined rationally.  Rationally, intellectually, statistically, scientifically.....the consideration of the Prisoner's Dilemma in any such way results in the worst possible outcome.

I used to believe that cooperating just meant feeling a lot less stressful, that getting along with others was just a much nicer way to spend the day.  Sort of the same effect as having nitrous oxide pumped into the room.  I have since come to realize that a lot more is at stake.  Unless we are related through commitment to the same goals, we’re at best dead weight to each other and at worst working against each other.  Until people freely cooperate on aligned commitments, the best possible outcome for everyone (remember: including yourself) is impossible.  That doesn't mean always agreeing with each other, or even liking each other.  It certainly doesn't mean eliminating diversity of views; if anything, cooperation should derive everything that diversity has to offer.  The philosopher David Hume said that "Truth arises from disagreement amongst friends."  My best working relationships have been those where I was able to work very closely with people with whom I agreed on nothing.  But by finding a basis on which we could go forward toward a common goal, we achieved great things.

Admittedly, cooperation isn't enough, but without it, nothing really special will ever result.  I know most of us, given the choice between just going through the motions and achieving something special, would inevitably choose the latter.

Finally, I'm reminded of something a former boss stated to underscore the point. Regarding a problem that was troubling a group of information systems executives for a couple of years, he said "you guys can solve this by just cooperating with each other.  I know you can do it because I have seen you cooperate in the past.  [pause for 5 seconds or so]  And if you don't cooperate going forward, then the next whole group of guys we get in here will learn to cooperate with each other."

I got it.