Guest commentary by Ken Evers-Hood
Some games are just no fun. The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the worst. In it, two players may choose not to cooperate, even when it seems as though it’s in their best interest to do so. Communities are trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma when it would be best if everyone cooperates, but there’s a temptation for individuals to go their own way.
In the church this can look like financial giving. It’s best if everyone who belongs to a congregation gives in faithful, responsible ways. But, every leader knows there will always be folks who come, receive the many benefits of community and choose not to give in return. Or it can look like volunteering. Many hands make light work, but everyone knows the plague of the Pareto principle where a small number of people wind up doing the lion’s share of the work.
In one particularly beautiful expression of Christian mission in Baltimore, this looks like faith leaders seeking a jobs program to help a struggling neighborhood and being blocked by one powerful individual refusing to cooperate.
At the 2016 national gathering of NEXT Church, Andrew Foster-Conners shared the work of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). BUILD, led by Douglas Miles (bishop of Koinonia Baptist Church), Glenna Huber (an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maryland) and Andrew Foster-Conners (pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church), knows how to achieve results. BUILD has redeveloped over 1,600 homes, runs the largest after-school program in Baltimore and is rewriting the cadet-training curriculum to better prepare officers for community policing.
But recently they ran into a challenge. At first, their attempt to redevelop an area of Baltimore that has been particularly hard hit by the drug trade was looking good. BUILD conducted a successful listening campaign and learned that people selling drugs would prefer legal work, but without good jobs selling drugs was the best option. Working with seven hospitals – including Johns Hopkins, one of Baltimore’s largest employers – BUILD devised a plan to create 1,000 well-paying jobs. The plan was moving forward until one man, Chester Burrell, the CEO of CareFirst (a health services company) opposed it. Not only did Burrell indicate he would kill this plan; he initially refused to even meet with leaders of BUILD to discuss the issue.
Robert Axelrod, professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan, wanted to see if he could discover a way to create the conditions for cooperation to flourish in difficult situations like this. To do this, Axelrod held a prisoner’s dilemma tournament in which various strategies competed. In a prisoner’s dilemma, the rules are simple. Players, on teams of two, have two choices: cooperate or betray. If the players cooperate they each receive three points for a community total of six. If they both defect they each receive one point for a total of two. At this point the game is a no brainer, right? Just cooperate. But not so fast. If one player cooperates and the other betrays, the cooperator receives no points while the backstabber walks away with a whopping five points. No less than John Nash showed the most rational strategy in this kind of situation is to defect. It’s better to settle for a guaranteed one point with the possibility of five rather than hope for three with the possibility of nothing. So, Nash wouldn’t see much hope for BUILD.
Fortunately, real people playing these games are more fully human and predictably irrational. In study after study, actual people are far more willing to cooperate. And there are patterns of behavior that help create the conditions for even the most obstinate CEO to consider cooperation.
There are many common strategies to play the prisoner’s dilemma. Some people always cooperate, because cooperation just feels like the right thing to do. Others play a “grim trigger” strategy, cooperating up until the other person betrays them. Then they never cooperate again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Axelrod and his team assumed that the most successful strategy would be a tough one, like grim trigger. But mathematician and peace activist Anatole Rappaport shocked Axelrod and his team by winning not only the first tournament but a second as well with a cooperative pattern called Tit for Tat (TFT). Axelrod describes TFT as “nice,” meaning it always starts by seeking cooperation. TFT is tough, though. If an opponent defects, TFT will return that defection. Then TFT is forgiving, because after defection the pattern immediately returns to cooperation. Finally, the pattern is utterly transparent and consistent. Later, an even more forgiving pattern called Generous TFT proved even more robust.
BUILD engaged Burrell using a pattern of behavior very similar to TFT. BUILD faithfully sought cooperation first by establishing coalitions working for the common good. But then BUILD’s jobs program was stymied by Chester Burrell, who defected from this cooperation. What did BUILD do? Like TFT, they didn’t just roll over but defected back. BUILD created a beautiful video explaining their program and naming Burrell personally. Further, they filled busses with people and physically protested Burrell’s office building. BUILD didn’t demonize Burrell, but pushed back powerfully against his unwillingness to cooperate. Because of this pressure, in December Burrell reached out to BUILD indicating a willingness to meet. True to the core principle of social organization “no permanent allies or enemies,” BUILD showed a kind of forgiveness akin to TFT. They were more than happy to meet, and negotiated a plan for 375 jobs. This isn’t the 1,000 jobs BUILD wants, but it’s a good start. And my guess, given the tenacity of BUILD’s leadership, is that they will eventually win those 1,000 jobs that will give struggling people real hope.
Just knowing about TFT isn’t enough for leaders. Putting this pattern into play is a spiritual practice and a life’s work. Every leader is naturally gifted at one or two steps of TFT, but not naturally skilled for the others. Some leaders are trusting and able to easily lead with open hands. Others, particularly leaders who have been burned, struggle to be vulnerable enough to reach out in the first place. Some leaders are able to be tough. When someone defects against cooperation by not showing up to meetings, not following through on commitments or displaying some other form antisocial behavior, these leaders can push back on this behavior in loving but firm ways. But for others, and I think this is especially true of religious leaders, pushing back doesn’t come naturally. Some leaders are able to forgive – and when they are hurt, they able to process this pain, move through it and seek strong, healthy ways to restore a healthy relationship. Other leaders cling to wounds, finding forgiveness all but impossible. Finally, God has blessed some leaders with the ability to be consistent, their yes being yes and no being no – in and out of season. Other leaders struggle with consistency, sometimes being too nice and at other times lashing out in punitive ways that do more harm than good.
Every leader is naturally gifted in at least one of these movements, but few of us are naturally gifted in all four ways. What are you great at? Where can you grow?
Ultimately, learning how to put TFT into practice boils down to how comfortable we are with power. Many in the church express suspicion about power. No one wants to be like the disciples arguing over who is the greatest. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has poured out power on the church through the Holy Spirit. When we use this power to build up broken communities and redeem lives otherwise lost to drugs or mass incarceration, we use this power as God intended. And right now, Miles, Huber and Foster-Conners are among our best teachers.
KEN EVERS-HOOD pastors Tualatin Presbyterian Church outside of Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, Ken writes about behavioral theology and game theory while chasing around his three kids.