Monday, 19 November 2012

The Cooperation Game

I have been reading the next part of The Networked Professional Reader, and other related articles, about the concept of Cooperation. This blog is not going to be a finished essay on my understanding of the concept but more of a collection of what I've been reading and how it has made me think...

In the Reader, Alan Durrant writes: "Cooperation (the will and the way to win)..." and defines cooperation as: 1. an act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint action. Both these phrases really got me thinking about whether the interactions I have with my network are win/lose scenarios or whether they lead to situations of cooperation and, therefore, mutual gain.

I then went on to look further into other work related to the concept of cooperation:

Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution talks about the concept of "survival of the fittest" to suggest a natural tendency for self-interest rather than cooperation, whereas Richard Dawkins writes about how the purpose of his book The Selfish Gene is to "examine the biology of selfishness and altruism" (1976, p1), which he suggests both exist in nature.

This got me thinking about the nature of my connections and whether my behaviour is truly selfless or only appears so but actually conceals selfishness and self-interest...
For example, saying I'll cover for a teacher who is ill sounds very altruistic but, leaving aside the bonus of possible extra pay, am I truly "helping her out" or noting down that by covering for her she will "owe me one" if I need cover later in the year?

In his essay, The Social Contract, Rousseau says that,
it is an empty and contradictory convention that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience (The Social Contract and Discourses, p.186). 

In this idea of a social network there can only be the winner (absolute authority) and the loser (unlimited obedience). If I were to enter into this type of contract in my professional practice, no matter which role I assumed, there would be no opportunity for personal growth and development; as authority I would never reflect on the knowledge or skills that I possess as "my way would be the right way", and as obedient I would have give up my autonomy and skill-set in order to be "ruled by the higher power".
However, I surely have to lose some of my autonomy and adapt my ideas in order to be able to cooperate? But, as Rousseau goes on to say,
Instead of renunciation, they [the individual] have made an advantageous exchange: instead of an uncertain and precarious way of living they have got one that is better and more secure;...instead of power to harm others security for themselves, and instead of strength, which others might overcome, a right which social union makes invincible." (p.207)
By cooperating and sharing equally, within a network that shares similar goals or outlooks, I really only lose the extremes of my autonomy - areas that are probably best kept in check - but gain a wealth of knowledge from the other members of the group, who all contribute from a different perspective. Ideas that are brought to the group can be shared, discussed, and improved upon within sight of the main aim, whereas on my own I may not see the flaws in my plan until it has already been implemented.

Game Theory is important because it focuses upon the results of cooperation and the decisions to cooperate or not (The Networked Professional, Reader 3, p.3). In reading about Game Theory, in particular Robert Axelrod's The evolution of cooperation (1984) I have begun to think of cooperation from the strategic aspect of planning "what will making my move mean for me" as well as from the reflective stance of "how did making my move work out?" and "which way shall I move next time?"
In the game The Prisoner's Dilemma, the invention of which is credited to a mathematician called Albert W. Tucker, there are several ways of behaving that each involve differing levels of loss or gain. However, the outcome of your choice is entirely dependent on how the other person chooses to move. And as each move is made without awareness of the other person's decision, what is the best strategy to adopt?
Robert Axelrod's experiment with cooperation set a challenge to find the best strategy to employ when playing the Prisoner's Dilemma, i.e. the one that worked most successfully in numerous encounters with the game. He found that a strategy called TIT FOR TAT was the most successful using, as its plan, cooperation as a starting point followed by "thereafter doing what the other player did on the previous move" (1984, p. viii).

It seems that this is a concept that is easily recognisable in the day to day interactions of life, both professional and personal. For example, if I meet you and my generosity of spirit is not met with reciprocal generosity then the next time we meet I'll approach you with a more defensive or selfish stance (thereby approaching you in the manner you previously met me). If your initially defensive action is repeated then I will continue to interact with you from a wary point of view, whereas if you adopt a more open and cooperative approach I will reassess my original idea, and so on...

In his article Launching "The Evolution of Cooperation" (Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 299, 2012, p21-24), Axelrod looks back at the original experiment and discusses what he calls "noise" - misunderstanding or misimplementation - and how "in the presence of noise, reciprocity still works well provided it is accompanied either by generosity (some chance of cooperating when one would otherwise defect) or contrition (cooperating after the other player defects in response to one’s own defection).
This added information has real relevance to me in my real-life experience of social interactions. It allows for the accommodation of such personality traits as shyness, social awkwardness, embarrassment by "giving the benefit of the doubt" to an initial encounter and allowing for a less aggressive response to what has been misunderstood as a "defective" move. I know that a lot of past arguments between myself and my students have come from a mutual misunderstanding of the exchange. For example, many years ago I used to say "pull your tummy in" until the day a body-conscious teenager ran out of class in tears because I had "called her fat!" Thankfully, after a long discussion between myself and my student, the misunderstanding was resolved. It also afforded me the opportunity for reflection that now means I ask pupils to "engage their core" thus eliminating any misinterpretation that I am commenting on weight or body shape.

So to sum up this blog, in terms of what it means to me as a professional practitioner, I can see the vital nature of cooperation. Here are two examples, of the many I have scribbled down in my journal, of how I see cooperation in terms of benefit to my professional practice:
  1. The common purpose of my work is, in the most basic terms, to enable students to become dancers. In order to do this I should be working with the students themselves by building up a relationship of mutual cooperation - I guide you, the student, on your journey by providing you with the knowledge and tools at my disposal, and you, the student, agree to take both a leap of faith, by trusting me, and by your willingness to enter into experimentation and discourse.  I find that this links, in my mind, to one of Donald Schon's theories, in which he says,
  2. ...the process by which they fail shows how a student's initially resistant and defensive stance and a complementary stance by the instructor lead both partise to create a behavioural world (an interrelated context that shapes their views of their own and the other's actions) in which it is impossible for either to break through the mutual misunderstanding. The create for each other what I shall call a "learning bind" (1984, p126-127). 
  3. As a teacher, I do not work in isolation. I work alongside other teachers (colleagues, other dance instructors and teachers in the wider field of education), and also with the parents/ family of my students. As we are all, hopefully, heading in the same direction - to produce well-rounded, skillful, confident adults - then a level of cooperation is vital to achieve balance and harmony. For example, a student wishes to attend dance class at another studio as well as mine. Do I a) tell her she can't take classes outside of this school or b) encourage her to experience as much dance as possible? Or perhaps a show rehearsal needs to be scheduled on a Sunday and a student can't make it because the family goes to church. Do I a) tell the student she can't be in the number if she can't make the rehearsal or b) find a way to either move the rehearsal to a later slot or coach the student separately? If I choose a) in both instances the student will be placed in a position of having to make a choice of me or them - a very win/lose situation - and there is no cooperation in our interaction. Whereas, if I choose to behave in a more cooperative way, or b) in my examples, the student isn't forced into a battle between one dance school and another, or between parents and teacher. The cooperative way also builds a relationship where there is more likely to be reciprocal "give and take" which benefits both sides in the long term.
However, I do realise that cooperation is a two-way street and I'm not so blind to realise that in life it is not always easy to be cooperative. I do believe though, just having the knowledge or skills to encourage cooperation can be enough to start the ball rolling...


  1. Hi Sara,
    I really enjoyed reading this blog, it is full of interesting information and you have clearly researched the ideas well. Talking about your nature of connections, you made my mind start thinking too.. I am often 'too nice' and will always find it hard to say no to people. I would never think of agreeing to 'help someone out' as a selfish act, but having read your thoughts on it, I suppose it could be. We all want to be kind to those around us but we also want to strive and come out on top. Do you agree that this links to cooperation and the idea of the 'game theory' ?
    It is interesting to read about how you see yourself within your own professional practice and the questions that arise. You speak of cooperation and how working this way allows everyone to do as they please and sometimes make the choices themselves. Obviously a times there will be win/lose situations but by working alongside your students and their parents, there is more than likely to be a positive solution that works for everyone.
    Thanks again for this insightful post!

  2. Hi Sarah, I like how you've written about cooperation with your students. When thinking about cooperation my initial thoughts went straight to my relationship with my boss and other teachers at the school, but cooperation with students is a very important issue and I feel ridiculous for not thinking about it straight away. Perhaps it is because I don't feel I have as many problems cooperating with them!

    Your point about students wanting to take class at another place is a very good one..I know many schools would not allow this but I feel that refusing to cooperate and compromise with the student, can only deter them from our own school's altogether. The "tit-for-tat" method that deemed most successful in the game of Prisoner's Dilemma could be linked here: if we do not allow our students to take class at other schools, they may be less willing to turn up for extra rehearsals for a show for example. I think particularly with teenagers, if we do not show them respect and cooperate with them, they will not be willing to give anything back to us and will be (as we like to say) "sulky" and unenthusiastic in lessons. Of course this has to be within reason, if there is a clash of commitments then of course they will have to choose..but in the end they are likely to choose the school that has been most helpful and supportive to them, in other words cooperated with them.

    I liked how you said that by cooperating within a network we may lose the extremes of our autonomy but gain a whole lot more in return. We should never have to change ourselves completely; if we do that then the person/network we are changing for is not cooperating with us, only taking from us. However, it is important to adapt and assess our ways from time to time in order to work more effectively with other people; this is what cooperation is all about!

    I appear to be in essay mode tonight so I apologise for such a long comment but I really enjoyed your post and as Emily commented, you have obviously done a lot of reading into this and the thought you have put into it really shows.