It took a study involving hundreds of thousands of game simulations and fancy phrases such as "zero-determinant strategy" to prove mom's advice was right all along: Be nice. The study by researchers at Michigan State University found that cooperation trumps selfishness when it comes to self-preservation, reports the BBC. Or, as one of the lead researchers puts it to Michigan Live: "We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean." It may seem like common sense, but the study actually flies in the face of a long-held theory from mathematician John Nash of Beautiful Mind fame, notes the Los Angeles Times.
In the classic game-theory scenario known as the "prisoner's dilemma," two inmates in separate cells are each offered various deals. They can rat out the other or stay silent, but their freedom also hinges on guessing what the other inmate will do. The best deal is if both stay silent, but Nash found that the "rational" prisoner would rat out his friend because it's the safest course. That conclusion, however, has a fundamental flaw, the new study suggests: The prisoners weren't able to communicate with each other. Add that real-world factor to the mix and the bottom line is this: “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead," says the Michigan researcher. "But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”