Limitations of an Oversimplified Study

In “Competition and Cooperation: The Wisdom to Know When”, by Roberta Wiig Berg centers on the Red-Blue Exercise(RBE), a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in an attempt to “raise awareness of the factors involved in distinguishing between situations appropriate for competition and cooperation”. Despite the awareness of some of the participants of the concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma before partaking in the study, the author discovered that feelings of competitiveness still arose when the element of betrayal and deceit were introduced, resulting in an overall negative score. From this, the author concluded that despite knowing better, we are programmed with a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to be competitors, bearing larger implications when taking our daily communication patterns with others into consideration. The author concludes that having greater self-awareness of our programming is key to gaining a deeper understanding of our decision-making processes, and allows us to better judge situations in which to be cooperative or competitive. While I naturally agree that more introspection would be of benefit to society, I challenge the conclusion as being somewhat exaggerated from implicit limitations within the study that the author has either failed to address or misinterpreted.


In this ‘Ethics’ section of the article, the author challenges the participants’ perspective of the exercise as just a contest or game. The author lays out three problems with this line of thinking: first being that the exercise shouldn’t have been a contest to begin with; secondly that the participants’ views were restricted to just the ten rounds and not beyond that; and lastly that the participants’ attitudes towards ethics in business and in games were distinguished clearly when perhaps, it should require further reflection.


There are some glaring contradictions with what the author has said here and the conduct of the study. For starters, the claim by the author that the exercise should never have been a contest to begin with is completely refuted by the aim of the exercise clearly shown in the first line of Appendix A (see below): “The aim of the exercise is for your group to end up with the highest positive score.” This clearly shows a competitive element in the exercise from the very beginning! Even if the participants were to adopt a cooperative attitude and both pick red for ten consecutive rounds, they would still end up with the same score, contrary to the objective of ending up with the highest positive score.


The second point is also equally baffling. The author denounces the “inappropriate competitive behavior and unethical practices” as not only failing to maximize their teams’ points, but also make any “Rounds 11 and 12 with the other team highly unlikely”. Highly unlikely? Well if we take a look at Appendix A again, rule 7 would evidently show that ‘Rounds 11 and 12’ aren’t just ‘highly unlikely’, they’re downright impossible! One way to interpret what the author has said here as ‘life after Round 10’, is if we were to talk about life after the study. However, this leads into the third point.


The author concludes with a final criticism of the view that the exercise is ‘just a game’, suggesting this attitude requires further questioning. To be perfectly honest, it seems to me as if the author is overdramatising or overstating the ‘seriousness’ of the exercise. I think Jc Saenz hit the nail on the head when they discussed the lack of incentive in the exercise, thereby diminishing the legitimacy of the test. There were no real stakes involved, and as such, no real motivation for the participants to treat the exercise as if it were a real business situation. Therefore, participants who think back on the exercise post-fact, most likely do not harbour feelings of bitterness or a grudge towards those who wronged them, being conscious of the relatively minute seriousness of the exercise.


The author continues with the claim: “Cheating, lying, betraying––any form of unethical activity in a game or not––reveals something about the character of the person engaging in these activities.” From personal experience, I do not believe this to be necessarily true. Particularly if we were to talk about this in terms of games, I feel that people whom I would judge to be of honest character, engage in these sort of ‘dishonest’ activities within games all the time, and for one simple reason: fun. For example, in my featured image, is a game called ‘Trivia Murder Party’, which features a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In all the times I’ve encountered this particular segment, I have not once seen a situation where not a single person takes the money, even if there was an agreement beforehand not to. And the reason isn’t really out of greed or self-interest. It’s usually simply just for hilarity or fun. Because it’s a game.


In general, I thought the study was quite illuminating in what it has shown about our thought processes and how we ‘automatically’ react to injustice. The presence of participants with prior knowledge of the Prisoner’s Dilemma was also interesting to note, with the author suggesting that knowledge of theory does not necessarily lead to practice of theory. However, I did not feel that the limitations of the study were adequately addressed, and were in some cases, wildly misinterpreted. As I mentioned at the start, while I feel that calling for more introspection is simple, good advice that everyone should follow, I believe that the study itself did not necessarily help lead to this conclusion.

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Featured Image Source

Appendix A from Competition And Cooperation: The Wisdom To Know When, by Roberta Wiig Berg


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