Tit for Tat is a game theory strategy that may bring you all the success you need.

Alex Aristidou
4 min readMar 17, 2024

Prisoner’s dilemma is the most famous game in game theory. The story goes as follows. Two prisoners are caught by the police for a crime. The police however have not had enough evidence to convict them completely. Thus they separate the two prisoners and give them the option to confess for a reduced jail time. Each prisoner is faced with an individual option to betray the other prisoner and get a reduced jail time. However, if both prisoners betray each other they become worse off than if they stayed loyal to each other.

In 1980 Robert Axelrod, a famous economist created a contest among game theorists and asked them to prepare and submit a strategy for a repeated prisoner’s dilemma game. Then in the contest, the different strategies would play against each other to determine a winner.

Many strategies were submitted and the winner was the good Tit for Tat. Practically the prisoner would remain loyal to the other prisoner in the first round and for every following round the player will retaliate with the same action as the one the opponent did before. So if in round x, the opponent played confess, then in the round (x+1) tit for tat would play confess and so on. Interestingly, this strategy did not do very well on the head-to-head with other strategies. I did win the most points though overall. The entry was submitted by Anatol Rapoport.

Why is Tit for Tat relevant to us?

In my opinion, tit for tat has the balance we all should have in business relationships. Even personal relationships one could argue. It advocates for kindness, by starting as loyal and cooperating but shows the other players that it will not tolerate exploitation by responding in the same manner. After a time, the opponent understands that it is in everyone’s best interest to simply cooperate as any other action will make them worse off in a repeated game, where reputation matters greatly. In retaliating though, tit for tat remembers the vital lesson of forgiveness and in contrast to some other strategies is willing to forgive others who betrayed and give them a new chance to cooperate if they start doing so.

The three steps of Tit for Tat to apply in our life

Step 1: Be kind at the beginning.

When we meet someone for the first time we have the option to be cautious or be willing to trust and be kind, giving them an option. Tit for Tat recommends we leave room for trust in a first interaction, behave in a “cooperating” way with other people and showcase our intentions for a positive relationship. Sometimes this can lead you to worse results as many people will not be so open but sometimes it could be the start of great relationships.

Step 2: Make it clear, you will not be exploited.

A common saying goes “Forgive but do not Forget”. By retaliating to your opponent you pass across a message that it is not okay for them to betray you every time. Imagine a friend who asks you to lend them money and promises to repay you in a week. You start by being kind and offering them that money. If then try don’t repay and keep on asking for more and more, there should be a time when you must say no. There comes a point where self-care should act as a mechanism to protect yourself.

Step 3: Be willing to forgive and restart a relationship.

Your friend then comes to you back and pays everything that you are owed. Apologies for what happened. Be willing to restart the relationship and be kind again. Never forget what happened but be ready to forgive. Things can happen to everyone and that friend might have had some serious reasons for not paying. Be understanding and get ready to restart the relationship once they are cooperating again.

It is always important to remember, we are humans and not machines. It is impossible to keep an accurate count of what everyone around you had done to you and what you did to them. In addition, we should also keep in mind feelings and emotions. Conventional game theory strategy assumes rationality in players, which is clearly not evident in real interactions. Nonetheless, there is a simple principle here that it is important to keep in mind as a benchmark and a reminder of how we behave with the people around us. It has the power to lead us to greater friendships and more powerful business partnerships. It can boost the effectiveness of our interactions. It is a Tit for Tat and it follows a simple 3 step approach.

  1. Be kind and trusting at the beginning.
  2. Don’t allow yourself to be exploited, retaliate if necessary.
  3. Forgive but do not forget! Be ready to restart a relationship if signs of cooperation exist but remember that if necessary step 2 might need to appear again!

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