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J Evol Biol. 2011 Aug;24(8):1628-39. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02307.x. Epub 2011 May 23.

Resolving the iterated prisoner's dilemma: theory and reality.

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Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, Regent's Park, London, UK.


Pairs of unrelated individuals face a prisoner's dilemma if cooperation is the best mutual outcome, but each player does best to defect regardless of his partner's behaviour. Although mutual defection is the only evolutionarily stable strategy in one-shot games, cooperative solutions based on reciprocity can emerge in iterated games. Among the most prominent theoretical solutions are the so-called bookkeeping strategies, such as tit-for-tat, where individuals copy their partner's behaviour in the previous round. However, the lack of empirical data conforming to predicted strategies has prompted the suggestion that the iterated prisoner's dilemma (IPD) is neither a useful nor realistic basis for investigating cooperation. Here, we discuss several recent studies where authors have used the IPD framework to interpret their data. We evaluate the validity of their approach and highlight the diversity of proposed solutions. Strategies based on precise accounting are relatively uncommon, perhaps because the full set of assumptions of the IPD model are rarely satisfied. Instead, animals use a diverse array of strategies that apparently promote cooperation, despite the temptation to cheat. These include both positive and negative reciprocity, as well as long-term mutual investments based on 'friendships'. Although there are various gaps in these studies that remain to be filled, we argue that in most cases, individuals could theoretically benefit from cheating and that cooperation cannot therefore be explained with the concept of positive pseudo-reciprocity. We suggest that by incorporating empirical data into the theoretical framework, we may gain fundamental new insights into the evolution of mutual reciprocal investment in nature.

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