Friday, May 3, 2013

Cheating = Extinction

In an Acculturated piece I wrote back in October called “The Culture of Cheating,” I mentioned the deeply corrosive effect that cheating has on a personal level. It can be easy to rationalize it when you’ve convinced yourself that cheating isn’t hurting anyone. But even if you’re never found out, it is a self-betrayal that shreds your integrity and your self-image, and repairing that internal damage is no easy task. And what about the external damage, to the broader society? Biology tells us that cheating equals extinction.

Biological populations, from microorganisms to humans, depend on the cooperation of their members in order to thrive as a society. But in any cooperative activity, there is the risk of “cheaters” benefitting from the productivity of others while making no contribution of their own. Take the slacker roommate, for example, who refuses to do his share of the housework. Cheaters exploit the system, taking without giving, with destabilizing consequences for the social unit as a whole. What happens if enough of this behavior spreads throughout the population? How much cooperation is necessary to maintain a society?

In a new study published this week in the PLOS Biology journal, MIT researchers Alvaro Sanchez and Jeff Gore (no relation to Al) investigated the competition between cooperating and cheating strains of a yeast colony. They found that, depending on the mix of strains, the yeast either achieves a stable coexistence or collapses for lack of cooperation. In other words, a yeast society dominated by non-producers – cheaters – is more likely to face extinction than one consisting entirely of producers, or cooperators.

The researchers confirmed this is true not only for benign environments, but even more so for populations under severe stress. When stable biological populations were suddenly exposed to a harsh environment, all of the pure cooperator populations survived, while just one of six mixed populations adapted to the sharp deterioration in conditions. Makes sense. After all: united we stand, divided we fall, as the saying goes.

Societies can absorb some of this behavior and still function successfully. Sanchez and Gore found that if the population starts off with sufficient cooperators, then the yeast ends up with a stable mix. But if the proportion of cheaters is too high, the colony dies out.

Sure, that’s yeast, but this experiment obviously serves up a lesson for human society as well, especially an economic one. Cheaters weaken the whole, and under conditions of stress or danger, when society most needs unity, cheaters can take everyone else down with them. A society in which too many drain away the productivity of the cooperators is doomed.

Here’s an example in microcosm. As I worked on this piece last weekend I happened to be watching, again, the 2012 action flick Act of Valor, which featured real Navy SEALs depicting carefully orchestrated, dangerous missions, and it occurred to me that here was a neat demonstration of Sanchez and Gore’s study. Navy SEALs must have absolute trust in each other. Everyone pulls his weight or risks jeopardizing the mission and/or getting himself (or more importantly, his teammates) killed. A “cheater” in a SEAL “colony,” to put it in biological terms, would most likely bring about the unit’s “extinction.” And that’s why cheaters are weeded out. Real-life SEAL Lieutenant Jeff Eggers says, “If you are the sort of person who sucks the energy out of the group without giving anything back, then you are going to go away.”

Of course, Sanchez and Gore’s study refers to a specific kind of cheating – leeching off the productivity of others. But other manifestations of it, such as infidelity, also have social and cultural consequences in addition to the personal havoc it wreaks. Either way, personally or socially, there is no escaping the consequences, and they’re always bad.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/1/13)