Give to Get: Game Theory

Ready for esoteric networking commentary, part two?

While composing my previous article, about the tie-in between the famous “give to get” networking principle and the “potlatch” rite practiced by a number of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, it struck me that there was one other geeky example I could share where modern job search advice seems to intersect with the annals of art, science, and history.  Again, folks, I realize it’s a sickness, so forgive me.  But I just love it when I spot a new twist or juicy, corroborating case study about networking that I haven’t seen anybody talk about before out there…

So this time around, we’re going to talk about the fascinating world of game theory.  If you really want to know more about this field, click here, but the cliff-notes version is that it involves scientists and mathematicians applying complex formulas, algorithms, and simulations to try to uncover the keys to successful strategy — be it of the military, corporate, board game, or “winning in life” variety.  And in these studies, if you peer closely enough, you’ll find empirical echoes of the “give to get” networking philosophy playing out, as well.

One famous experiment, for example, demonstrated that the most successful and stable long-term strategy for individuals living within a community was to always cooperate with the people around them as the first option.  To quote a few relevant passages about this study, again from Wikipedia: “Greedy strategies tended to do very poorly in the long run while more altruistic strategies did better, as judged purely by self-interest.”  Additionally, after conducting the experiment, Robert Axelrod [game theory expert and professor of Political Science & Public Policy at the University of Michigan] reached “the oxymoronic-sounding conclusion that selfish individuals for their own selfish good will tend to be nice and forgiving and non-envious.”

How accurate or controlled was this particular experiment?  I can’t say for sure, since I can barely remember how to do long division, much less understand the level of math involved in this kind of thing.  But setting that issue aside for a moment, if you re-read the paragraph above, there’s one part that really caught my attention and that relates back to the key point of this article, which is how these concepts relate to business and career networking.  If you read the quote again, you’ll notice that the experiments in question weren’t examining the benefits of cooperation from an ethical standpoint or for the sake of community welfare as a whole.  They were testing the effectiveness of cooperation (i.e. reciprocity) solely as a self-interested strategy designed to help the individual in question “win” and satisfy their OWN personal wants and needs.

This, to me, is the really intriguing part.  According to these experiments, even if one truly does view networking solely as a means to an end, from a purely self-interested “how can I leverage the people around me to get help/leads/referrals?” point of view, these studies still suggest that the key to success is to practice a help-others-first strategy as opposed to just going out and strip-mining your Rolodex for favors.  Scientifically proven?  Absolutely beyond dispute?  Directly relevant to your own daily networking efforts?  I’ll leave those questions up to you to answer, but I thought it was some interesting food for thought, at the very least…

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