Study: Evolution Proves That Nice Guys Don't Finish Last

Two Michigan State University biologists completed a study and found that evolutionary biology does not reward selfish people and that over time, cooperative "nice guys" finish first, which contradicts the notion that "nice guys finish last."

"We found evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean," said Christoph Adami, co-lead researcher, according to a MSU statement.

The study, "Evolutionary Instability of Zero-Determinant Strategies Demonstrates That Winning Is Not Everything," co-authored by Arend Hintze, appears in the Nature Communications Journal and is based on game theory. The concept involves creating games to mimic situations of conflict or cooperation, allowing researchers to define decision-making strategies and understand why certain types of behavior occur within individuals.

In 2012, two physicists published a paper after discovering a breakthrough in their own study that revealed an unknown strategy, called zero-determinant (ZD), for the game "prisoner's dilemma," which guaranteed a selfish player a better outcome than its cooperative counterpart.

"The paper caused quite a stir. The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area," said Adami.

In the prisoner's dilemma game, two prisoners are hypothetically offered freedom if they choose to snitch on their opponent, who will spend six months in jail. If both prisoners snitch, they both remain imprisoned for three months. If they both stay silent, they both get one month but if they talk to each other, they are likely to cooperate because then both will only spend one month in jail. However, if they do not communicate, it is to their advantage to snitch so they may get a shorter jail term.

This study prompted Adami and Hintze to question whether following a zero determinant strategy would eliminate cooperation entirely. They ran thousands of computer-generated simulations in their study and found that while ZD strategies offer advantages when used against non-ZD opponents, they do not work well against other ZD opponents, which proved that cooperative players ultimately reap benefits.

"For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn't evolutionarily sustainable," said Adami.

"The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents," Hintze said. "And even if ZD strategists kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So they wouldn't be ZD strategists anymore," he added.

According to Adami and Hintze, selfish players can only benefit if they know who their opponents are but are eventually forced to become cooperators once they are out of that setting.

"Communication is critical for cooperation – we think communication is the reason co-operation occurs," said Adami, according to U.K.-based The Independent. "In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other."