Can people  accurately predict the behaviour of others when it comes to cooperation? We finally got an answer to this question that has long been perturbing scientists. Vogt, Efferson and Fehr conducted a study to test how well people can guess behaviour of participants in a Prisoner’s Dilemma (cooperation) and Stag Hunt (coordination) games. They proposed an evolutionarily-rooted theory, according to which, participants should not be able to predict cooperation, but should be able to predict coordination.

This logic comes from the design of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) and Stag Hunt (SH) games. In PD, the highest payoff goes to a player who defects while the other player cooperates. Hence, the defectors should try not to give away any predictive cues to their behaviour. In SH, the most beneficial result for both players happens when both choose the same option. So, if they can communicate their intentions, both will benefit.

Two caveats:

  1. Both PD and SH games, to some extent, measure risk aversion, which may confound the results.
  2. In some environments, the optimal strategy may be not to maximise the total payoff but the difference between one’s own and other’s payoff.

Anyway, the long-awaited answer to the question whether we can accurately predict intentions in inter-dependent economic games is…: maybe, but probably not. Contrary to hypotheses, participants did not exceed the chance level when predicting behaviour in SH. Also, although participants seemingly had higher accuracy level when guessing behaviour in PD, computer simulations indicated that this result isn’t robust.

The inconclusiveness of this study is disappointing, yet it is comforting to know that, as long as you produce a coherent piece of research, the fact that you failed to support your hypotheses will not preclude you from getting published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Vogt, S., Efferson, C. & Fehr, E. (in press) Can we see inside? Predicting strategic behavior given limited information. Evolution and Human Behavior