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Good news: Science shows that "nice guys finish last" is a myth

There's a common belief that in order to get ahead, you have to be a tenacious cutthroat.

As the saying goes, nice guys finish last.

Except, well, that's not necessarily true, say Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, the minds behind the YouTube sensation AsapSCIENCE.

In a video titled "The Prisoner's Dilemma," Moffit and Brown challenge the "nice guys finish last" notion and use scientific research to show that kindness and forgiveness are "key factors to success."

By contrast, selfishness and other devious behaviors, claim Moffit and Brown, don't necessarily bring lasting long-term success (though they might help you achieve short-term goals).

The YouTubers begin their query with a look at the prisoner's dilemma, a famous game theory puzzle that Max Nisen summarizes like this:

Two criminals are arrested, but police can't convict either on the primary charge, so they plan to sentence them to a year in jail on a lesser charge. Each of the prisoners, who can't communicate with each other, are given the option of testifying against their partner. If they testify, and their partner remains silent, the partner gets three years, and they go free. If they both testify, both get two. If both remain silent, they each get one.

In the game, it is most rational for each person to do the self-interested thing and confess (regardless of what the other person does). But everyone would actually come out ahead overall if they simply cooperated (i.e., neither confessed).

Many of us face a version of this dilemma every day. Should I hold the elevator door open for that person 40 feet away, even if that decision will risk setting off a chain of events that could possibly make me late for work? Should I walk an extra 10 feet to throw my plastic bottle in the recycling can, even though most of the other people in this restaurant aren't recycling their waste? Even when we're not aware of it, our minds are weighing the possible outcomes of the choices available to us.

So what does this have to do with nice guys succeeding? As Moffit and Brown point out, if you play repeated versions of the prisoners' dilemma, the optimal strategy switches — it's actually better to adopt a "tit-for-tat" strategy, where you start by cooperating and continue to do so if the other person does.

And this turns out to be an optimal strategy in nature, too. Birds, for instance, help each other remove ticks from hard-to-reach areas, and in return, are rewarded with the same kind of help. The biological term for this is "reciprocal altruism." Cooperative animals are seen as valuable to their species, whereas selfish ones — those birds who don't help with tick removal — are shunned from their communities.

Now extend that idea to humans. As Moffit and Brown note, "animals [in this case, humans] which contain genes that promote nice behavior are likely to have more offspring. It's the basic underlying code for altruistic behavior. You help me and I'll help you, and ultimately we'll all do better."

The upshot? It's in humanity's best interests for people to behave kindly toward one another.

(H/t Digg)