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Gelman on Axelrod and Trench Warfare

Abstract: The Evolution of Cooperation, by Axelrod (1984), is a highly influential study that identifies the benefits of cooperative strategies in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. We argue that the most extensive historical analysis in the book, a study of cooperative behavior in First World War trenches, is in error. Contrary to Axelrod’s claims, there soldiers in the Western Front were not generally in a prisoner’s dilemma (iterated or otherwise), and their cooperative behavior can be explained much more parsimoniously as immediately reducing their risks. We discuss the political implications of this misapplication of game theory.

Andrew Gelman (2007), “Methodology as Ideology: Mathematical Modeling of Trench Warfare,” unpublished paper. Available here.

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