Skip to content

Joanne Gowa scooped me by 22 years in my criticism of Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation

See page 179 here for Gowa’s review from 1986.

And here’s my version (from 2008).


  1. The prisoner's dilemma started its life as a theoretic oddity – in non zero sum games, there is a difference between equilibrium points and optimal points- that morphed into a stylized manner of dealing with every potential conflict between the group and individual.

    Many different models of this interaction, between individual choice and what I expect the group to do, were laid about by Tom Schelling over 30 years ago, but social scientists continue to beat the 2 person dilemma game into every potential conflict.

    It would also be helpful if we characterized group activities into coordinations versus cooperation, traffic signs versus barn building.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I read your review but I think that your argumentation that explains why trench warfare is not a prisoners dilemma has flaws.

    It is because that you seem to ignore the fact that trench warfare is a "game" which is to be "played" many times (i.e. a long duration of several months or years). This is the key point that Axelrod makes in his book. If it was a one shot game, the soldiers would be better off if they were the ones who shoot the enemy and came back home (with rewards such as fame and money).

    But it is an iterated game and the reason that cooperation is preferred is based on the expected long duration that they will face each other. i.e. It keeps them alive. As I said in the previous paragraph, things would be a lot different if they would be facing each other for only once and judged according to the outcome in their home country.

    However, I agree on your explanation that the prisoner's dilemma could be used for a proof of inherent selfishness and conservative view on history.

    But anyways, this may only be a faulty application of the idea, in my most optimist thinking..


  3. Andrew Gelman says:


    I disagree. If trench warfare were a one-shot game, soldiers still would have no individual incentive to risk their lives by shooting.