5.6 Social Defection


Social defection occurs when a person in a social group acts by Rule 1. Anti-social acts like stealing illustrate individuals taking from a social interaction but not giving anything back. They occur when the drive to get something for nothing permeates the social system, driving not only crime but also bargains and gambling. Every social synergy has a corresponding defection, e.g. in trade, when sellers can defect by false advertising, shoddy products or bad warranties, buyers buy less. Buyers can also defect, e.g. buy an expensive ball gown, wear it to a ball, then falsely request a refund, saying it did not fit. If many customers do that, sellers offer less, e.g. refuse refunds (also defect), even though refunds benefit both seller (more sales) and buyer (less risk).

Game theory points out the fly in the social ointment of synergy: If my acts give your gains and yours give mine, what if I take from you but give nothing back? On a personal level it always pays to defect, e.g. for a seller to give shoddy goods or for a buyer’s cheque to bounce. Yet if the cheated “sucker” does not repeat the interaction, both lose their synergy gains, so cheaters destroy their own success. If a crime-wave “succeeds”, the social benefits it feeds on dry up. Crime is like a social parasite that kills its host. The idea that one can get something for nothing is the myth of our generation. All crime is essentially socially unsustainable.

In game theory, mutual synergy is like a ball balanced on the crest of a hill that must sooner or later roll permanently down into the valley of mutual defection. Yet societies still generate synergy, even after thousands of years. Crime can short-circuit the link between social acts and synergy but it has not prevailed, although defections do cascade into social collapse, as if I defect reduce the synergy gains of others, increasing the pressure on them to also defect. As more people defect, this increases the pressure on the remainder to also defect, etc. Hence a common reason given for cheating is that “everyone is doing it” (Callahan, 2004). A few defections can cause a chain reaction that destabilizes an entire social system.