Microsoft researchers show how computer power is transforming the social sciences

Mar 17, 2017   |   Athima Chansanchai

It’s called the prisoner’s dilemma and it goes like this: You and a fellow gang member are in jail. One of you committed a heinous crime, but the prosecutor doesn’t know who, but he has given you both an opportunity to rat. If you betray your fellow gang member but are not ratted on, you walk free while your buddy serves a three-year term. If you both rat, you both serve two years. The prosecutor knocks on your cell door. What do you do?

For decades, social scientists have studied how cooperation among humans evolves by observing people play multiple games of prisoner’s dilemma. Cooperation, studies suggest, eventually unravels.

That’s exactly what a team of computational social scientists from Microsoft’s research organization in New York expected to prove when they did an experiment that enabled 94 participants to play 400 10-round games of prisoner’s dilemma in a virtual lab over the course of 20 consecutive weekdays.

“Thirty years ago, people were doing experiments that were almost exactly the same as this one, but the big difference is now we are able to do it for a month rather than an hour,” said Duncan Watts, a principal researcher in Microsoft’s New York lab and a pioneer in applying computational techniques to traditional social science problems. “The payoff is that we see behavior happening on very long timescales, and that behavior turns out to be really important for the long-run evolution of cooperation.”

The study, published Jan. 13 in the journal Nature Communications, is the latest example out of Microsoft’s New York lab to illustrate how digital technologies are transforming the social sciences by providing new ways to gather, process and analyze data, which has traditionally been the greatest limiting resource in the social sciences.

Read the full story on Next at Microsoft.

Athima Chansanchai
Microsoft News Center Staff

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