Game Theory & Biotech Alpha Culture

Game Theory & Biotech Alpha Culture

In 1973, John Maynard Smith presented an idea explaining game theory and how alpha culture exists in societies. Maynard’s hypothesis asked you to imagine a world with doves and hawks. If there would be only hawks, their fights would be devastating to their population. If there would be only doves, they would be susceptible to any intruders, therefore such a population would also not be stable. But the right combination of hawks and doves would be evolutionary stable.

This brings us to cooperation versus competition and rationality versus altruism. As with many situations in real-life, the games are often not zero-sum, but by cooperative efforts all players can be better off. 

We witness again and again that, in particular, US American enterprises are being built by one supposedly shiny figure who assembles subpar teammates around him or her. The firms strive with the growing experience and network of that single person and are closely associated with the individual’s character. Business relationships are being entered and trust being built with that individual rather than the firm as an institution. Startup companies that dare to explore more novel approaches and non-hierarchical structures, though, show successes, as do larger organisations formalizing and adopting respective strategies. However, within the biopharmaceutical sector and its various providers, there appears to be a lack of adoption – or even awareness.

Anecdotal observations yet again see the root cause in the vast multidisciplinarity of the domain, and in the all-so-technical backgrounds of its protagonists where education programs and lifetime learning apparently place less importance on modern organisational insights than in other industries.

Behavioural and organisational research underline impressively though, a very simple “game”, that the conditions for survival (be nice, be provocable, promote the mutual interest) seem to be the essence of morality. While this does not yet amount to a science of morality, the game theory approach has clarified the conditions required for the evolution and persistence of cooperation, and shown how Darwinian natural selection can lead to complex behavior, including notions of morality, fairness, and justice – beyond alpha culture.

In the 1980s, professor of Political Science Robert Axelrod ran a tournament inviting strategies from collaborators all over the world. Axelrod found that the winning strategy that performed the best overall (not in every game, but on average), was “Tit-for-Tat”, also called look-back strategy or reciprocal altruism. It worked simply by starting the first iteration with Cooperation, than looked back at the opponent’s last move and copied it in the next iteration. In summary, the best strategies were found to have these surprising properties: 

• Be nice – don‘t be the first to defect 

• Be provocable – return actions, both retaliation and forgiveness 

• Don‘t envy – don‘t focus on beating the opponent, but on maximizing your own score

 • Don‘t be tricky – anytime you try to exploit the opponent, you will provoke revenge 

We see the same dynamics playing out in biotech and encourage clients to build more inclusive, less alpha leader based organisations that have the ability to strive more broadly.

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