Hold the door, please!

Everyday each of us engages in several delicate dances with the other members of society. I secretly long for the days of learned formalities, proper ettiquette, and wide-spread manners. If someone were just to tell me what to do, things would run more smoothly. Take, for instance, the simple act of holding the door for another person.

So far I’ve only noticed one person play the situation correctly. On several occasions, I held the door for my friend Lane, who, by chance, was always a good ten yards away when I first spotted him. Lane usually acknowledged my act of kindness. He might say, “Thanks, Joshie,” but he would never speed up as I stood. The moments seemed to lag as he slowly approached the entrance to the dining hall. Once he arrived, I thanked him with full sincerity. Most people, I explained, sprint once they realize that someone else is holding the door for them. However, that ruins the favor. What sort of charity requires you to break a sweat? Lane had enjoyed my gift as it was intended, and I believe we both appreciated the exchange all the more for it.

But that sort of action doesn’t readily transfer to any other person. On Friday a stranger held a door for me, and like most people, I sped up as soon as I noticed that I was inconveniencing another person. The man beckoned me to slow down, but how could I? Then I’d come across as arrogant and entitled. I’ll make no one a doorman for me. Well, at least no stranger. And there lies the fundamental difference. Lane and I are friends. This man and I were not. For some reason it’s easier for me to take advantage of my friends than strangers. I guess that’s a good thing for society at large, though a little strenuous on my immediate circle of friends. I believe sociobiologists would have a thing or two to say about multi-level selection processes at this point, but I don’t.

Instead I have a few questions. Normally we think of selfish behavior as something that individuals inflict on members outside of their group. (The ones who are selfish to those inside their group is called “cheaters” or a “defectors”.) The defectors take advantage of and therefore benefit from the cooperators on the individual level. Locally, the defectors do better. But when it comes to asking for help, it’s easier for me to ask someone I know I can trust. I’m more willing to ask my friends to do me favors than strangers. In the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it’s in your best interest to cooperate with your partner because you’re going to see them again. If you screw them over, they’ll remember it and be less likely to help you in the future. But in many cases I impose on other precisely because I know I’ll see them again. My willingness to ask others to do things for me increases with my level of comfort with them, and I see it in others, too.

Take it up a notch and look at groups as your fundamental unit rather than individuals. People have noticed before that groups that have more (internal) cooperators do better on average than groups with fewer. That seems to make sense. If more people in your group are willing to help out others in your group, the group should run more smoothly than groups that don’t work well together. Nothing exciting there. But what happens when there’s lots of internal chaos but external altruism—can groups composed of individuals that take advantage of each other but cooperate with members outside of the group coexist given proper inter-group interaction?

Because the comfortable defectors have to act charitably when someone else calls on them, it’s a little unfair to characterize them as defectors. Maybe it’s best to call them comfortable defectors-generous forgivers. This is starting to sound like the win-stay, lose-shift strategy. Maybe the folks studying evolutionary dynamics can clear things up for me. Help me out if you can, especially if I’m already comfortable with you.

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