Evolutionary dynamics of the continuous iterated Prisoner's dilemma

Stephen Le, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


The iterated prisoner's dilemma (IPD) has been widely used in the biological and social sciences to model dyadic cooperation. While most of this work has focused on the discrete prisoner's dilemma, in which actors choose between cooperation and defection, there has been some analysis of the continuous IPD, in which actors can choose any level of cooperation from zero to one. Here, we analyse a model of the continuous IPD with a limited strategy set, and show that a generous strategy achieves the maximum possible payoff against its own type. While this strategy is stable in a neighborhood of the equilibrium point, the equilibrium point itself is always vulnerable to invasion by uncooperative strategies, and hence subject to eventual destabilization. The presence of noise or errors has no effect on this result. Instead, generosity is favored because of its role in increasing contributions to the most efficient level, rather than in counteracting the corrosiveness of noise. Computer simulation using a single-locus infinite alleles Gaussian mutation model suggest that outcomes ranging from a stable cooperative polymorphism to complete collapse of cooperation are possible depending on the magnitude of the mutational variance. Also, making the cost of helping a convex function of the amount of help provided makes it more difficult for cooperative strategies to invade a non-cooperative equilibrium, and for the cooperative equilibrium to resist destabilization by non-cooperative strategies. Finally, we demonstrate that a much greater degree of assortment is required to destabilize a non-cooperative equilibrium in the continuous IPD than in the discrete IPD. The continuous model outlined here suggests that incremental amounts of cooperation lead to rapid decay of cooperation and thus even a large degree of assortment will not be sufficient to allow cooperation to increase when cooperators are rare. The extreme degree of assortment required to destabilize the non-cooperative equilibrium, as well as the instability of the cooperative equilibrium, may help explain why cooperation in Prisoner's Dilemmas is so rare in nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)258-267
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 21 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Continuous iterated prisoner's dilemma
  • Cooperation
  • Discrete iterated prisoner's dilemma
  • Generosity
  • Noisy iterated prisoner's dilemma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Applied Mathematics


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