Is the repeated prisoner's dilemma a good model of reciprocal altruism?

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19 Scopus citations


Axelrod and Hamilton (1981) used the repeated prisoner's dilemma game as a basis for their widely cited analysis of the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Recently, it has been argued that the repeated prisoner's dilemma is not a good model for this task. Some critics have argued that the single period prisoner's dilemma represents mutualistic rather than altruistic social interactions. Others have argued that reciprocal altruism requires that the opportunities for altruism occur sequentially, first one individual and then after some delay the other. Here I begin by arguing that the single period prisoner's dilemma game is consistent with the definition of altruism that is widely accepted in evolutionary biology. Then I present two modified versions of the repeated prisoner's dilemma, one in which behavior is sequential, and a second in which behavior occurs in continuous time. Each of these models shares the essential qualitative properties with the version used by Axelrod and Hamilton.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-222
Number of pages12
JournalEthology and Sociobiology
Issue number2-4
StatePublished - Jul 1988
Externally publishedYes


  • Cooperation
  • Prisoner's dilemma
  • Reciprocal altruism
  • Reciprocity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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