Jerry came home from work angry. He is a supervisor at a restaurant. His wife, Candice, asked, "What's the matter, honey?"
"Oh, I'm just mad at the guys I was working with tonight," he says. "I wasn't scheduled to work tonight, and I was looking forward to a night off, but Bill called me from Spokane. He forgot he was scheduled tonight and begged me to work for him as a busser. He offered me $150 to work for him, plus whatever tips I might make."
"Wow! Hard to pass that up." Candice said.
"Well, I actually tried to pass it up. I called Justin and asked if he wanted the opportunity. Bill had tried to call him, but couldn't get through. Bill was about 20 minutes from being the best man in his friend's wedding and was freaking out because he knew he'd be fired if he couldn't get his shift covered. So I told him I'd get a hold of Justin, and if Justin wouldn't do it, I'd do it."
"That was nice of you."
"Yeah, so I called Justin, and he couldn't do it because he was already working. So by the time I got to work, all three of the servers I was working with knew about the deal and were jealous because I was going to make more than they were."
Jerry paused. He was thinking about something. Then he said, "I knew they would feel that way, so I'd already decided to tell them that they didn't have to tip me at the end of the night. I was already getting a big enough tip from Bill. And you know what? Not one of them thanked me."
"Ouch," said Candice. "That's uncool."
"And I've been kind of mad about it all night and now I've got a headache."
Candice started to say something but stopped. Then she looked at Jerry and said, "Why did you want to let them keep your tips?"
"They don't make much money in that section. I'm exempt for working that shift because I'm the supervisor, and I just figured it would make things more even, more fair. So basically," and Jerry's voice started to get louder, "I worked for Bill because I didn't want him to get fired and I didn't want those guys to have to work without a busser because I know how hard that is, and I got no gratitude at all. That pisses me off. Dogs! I don't think I'll be doing them any more favors. I bend over backwards trying to make our working conditions good, to help us work together as a team and feel good about it, and they just whine and complain."
Candice broke in, "Maybe they complain because it keeps you doing them favors."
"What do you mean?"
"Some people don't really try to be fair. If someone said you didn't have to tip them, you would immediately say thank you. You might even try to insist on tipping anyway, regardless of what their arrangement was with someone else."
Jerry nodded his head and said, "I actually was expecting at least one of them to do exactly that. But not only did they not try to talk me out of it, they didn't even seem grateful."
"I think it would be a good idea for you," said Candice, "to try to determine who in your world is fair with you, and who takes more from you than you give to them. And then start dropping your level of giving with the takers until it is equal. Because really, except for children, the give-and-take between people should be pretty equal, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I guess so," said Jerry, looking thoughtful now. "It should."
"It is as if," said Candice, really on a roll now, "you assume everyone is fair and if you treat them well, they'll treat you well in return."
"Well, I remember learning a long time ago — I read it in a book somewhere — that people will treat you as you treat them," said Jerry, "and I think that's true, don't you?"
"Well, it's true to some extent. But not a hundred percent. You know what? Probably that should be the way you begin every relationship. But then after awhile," and now Candice was talking very fast, "after awhile you should try to determine whether or not the other person is treating you well in return. And if they aren't, you're kind of a fool to keep treating them well, right? I mean, I know you're not a fool, Jerry. You're a really good man, and smart too. Maybe it's just that you've never really tried to distinguish between those who return your goodness fairly, and those who don't. That's probably all it is. Those who don't are taking your resources — resources that could be going somewhere better. Like tonight, you could have taken the tips from those guys, and given it to your niece, who really wants dance lessons. Instead you gave it to three guys who you have already done a lot for and who don't appreciate it and don't give back."
"This is making a lot of sense, Candice." Jerry was looking down, obviously deep in thought. Candice let him think for a full minute.
"Another thing to add to this," said Candice softly, "is something I remember reading in Greek mythology. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken into the underworld. She didn't want to be there and she was very grumpy. Hades went out of his way to make her happy. He gave her gifts, and did things for her, trying very hard to please her. Persephone started liking all the attention and gifts, but then she realized she couldn't let on that she liked it because then Hades might stop being so nice. So she kept up the pretense of complaining and never being satisfied with anything in order to keep Hades giving to her."
Jerry said grimly, "That sounds familiar."
"You know how you have said before you have a tendency to feel anxious about what people think?" said Candice. "So maybe you are in the same position as Hades with some people. Maybe because you're trying hard to please people and make them happy, some people have figured out that if they stay unsatisfied and complaining, they can keep you trying to please them."
"That's possible," said Jerry, a dawning light beginning to show in his eyes. "That's very possible. And because I haven't been paying attention to who was giving back to me and who wasn't, who was being fair to me and who was just taking advantage of me, maybe I have been…"
Jerry looked like a man who just realized he'd been conned. "Oh that really sucks."
Candice looked questioningly at Jerry and he said, "No, this is good! This is really good. It's just that I think I have been a fool. People have been taking advantage of me, and what's worse, I've often been upset about it."
Jerry started to brighten up all of a sudden. "So let me get this straight," he said, "I have been giving to people without recognizing some don't give back. So I'm losing whatever resources — time, money, effort — that I could have been doing something good with, and some people respond by taking and not giving, and worse, being ungrateful or complaining, which made me upset, causing me stress in my life that I basically caused myself!"
Jerry looked resolute. "Okay, that's it," he said firmly, "No more. I am going to start looking at the people in my life. I'm going to figure out — and it shouldn't be too hard — who gives back to me and who just takes. And I'm going to change my tack with the takers. I'm going to reduce my level of giving until it is equal to what they're giving me."
Candice started to say something, but Jerry blurted out, "But I'm not going to become a cynic. Whenever I first meet someone or establish a relationship, I will start out giving. I will be a good guy. I like being kind and generous. But I will pay attention. I'll notice if the person is a taker and then I'll drop my giving down to where we're equal. This is great! Thanks Candice."
TIT FOR TAT
Interestingly, in the 1970's the political scientist Robert Axelrod created a computer world. Different programs within this computer world played the famous Prisoner's Dilemma with each other.
The Prisoner's Dilemma is a hypothetical situation, played as a game. It says to imagine that you have two men who committed a crime together. They have been caught and the police are interrogating them separately. Both prisoners are offered the same deal: "If you rat on your partner and if he keeps quiet, he'll get a life sentence and you'll go free. But if you both keep silent, we have enough evidence that you'll both get one year in prison. If he rats and you don't, you'll get life and he'll go free. If you both rat on each other, you'll each get twenty years in prison."
The dilemma is often played repeatedly with the same two people, who choose to cooperate or take advantage of the other through successive rounds of the game.
The Prisoner's Dilemma game is designed to parallel real life. If two people in real life cooperate with each other, it very often works to their mutual advantage. But if one person cooperates and the other takes advantage, it often works out very well for the selfish one and the unselfish person gets screwed. But to go around preempting people — trying to take advantage of them before they take advantage of you — results in great loss all around. That's the "dilemma." What should each prisoner do? What is the best strategy?
Researchers use the Prisoner's Dilemma to study interactions between people. It mimics our real-life choices and consequences very well.
Robert Axelrod, the political scientist, invited computer programmers to create a program for his computer world. The programs would interact with each other, playing the Prisoner's Dilemma. The question is, which program succeeded the best? What strategy was the most effective?
The program that beat all the others was named TIT FOR TAT. It was designed by Anatol Rapoport and it was a surprisingly simple program.
The strategy it used was this: For the first interaction, it would cooperate. After that, it would repay in kind whatever the other did. If the other cooperated, TIT FOR TAT benefited. So did the other. If the other took advantage, TIT FOR TAT cut its losses immediately.
As the game went on, TIT FOR TAT gained more (and lost less) than any other program. In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright wrote, "More than the steadily mean, more than the steadily nice, and more than various 'clever' programs whose elaborate rules made them hard for other programs to read, the straightforwardly conditional TIT FOR TAT was, in the long run, self-serving."
If you feel people take advantage of your kindness, you can save yourself a lot of stress and bad feelings by following a strategy somewhat like the TIT FOR TAT program. When you first begin a relationship with someone, be generous, cooperative, and helpful. But if you notice a lot of taking and not much coming back, cut your losses and drop your generosity down to the level the other is comfortable with. This is the solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma and to Jerry's workplace dilemma. It's simple, it's kind, and it is intelligent too.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.