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Pareto Optimum
Pareto Optimum
by Ross Robertson
Pareto Optimum

Consider a random encounter between two individuals. For simplicity, let's keep it just between two people, and let's disregard any influence of other people or environmental factors. Let's also be deliberately vague about the nature of the encounter.

Without knowing any more details, we can generalize a limited set of outcomes. The encounter will leave each individual either better off or worse off than they were before, or else the interaction will be neutral, with no meaningful change in a person's overall state.

Given this, let's construct a table of these possible outcomes. Say we have Person A, and Person B, and the result of the encounter is a benefit (+), a detriment (-), or a neutral value (~). The table would look something like this:
+ +
+ -
+ ~
- +
- -
- ~
~ +
~ -
~ ~
Of course, real life is more complicated. The people in question may be better or worse off, but believe otherwise. Costs and benefits happen in different degrees. A real world system would be front-loaded with individual and collective histories. And there are many situations where short-term gain may be offset by a long term loss, or vice versa. For this discussion, we ignore all of that, and stipulate that the table represents a simple, clean truth once all of the complexities have balanced out.

And the results are interesting indeed. From the perspective of either individual, we see that 2 out of 3 (6 out of 9) encounters will not be harmful. Therefore simple math suggests that engaging with others is a pretty good gamble, especially if you are indifferent to the potential loss of the other.

But if we look at the system holistically, where the needs of both people are considered simultaneously, we see a different story. Our table shows that only 4 out of 9 possible encounters leave our both our participants unhurt. Of these 4, only 3 result in a gain for either. Put another way, only 1 in 3 encounters results in a gain with no attendant loss.

What can we make of this?

First, let's remember that our analysis artificially assumes that all other things are equal, and each outcome has the same chance (1 in 9) as any other. In practice, this is not so. Goals set by the participants A and B may sway the odds to favor a particular result over others.

For example, if the individuals choose to compete, there is less likelihood of a true win/win situation (assuming that the competition is genuine with real stakes and consequences). In competition, even neutral outcomes are unlikely, since a tie will only have come after the expense of some energy, and therefore each person loses. The most likely outcomes of competition are win/lose, lose/win, or lose/lose.

Cooperation can favor more positive outcomes for each individual. If the goal of each individual in an encounter is to make sure that both participants gain, or at the very least, no harm is done, then loss may be avoided. So the outcome of a successful cooperative encounter will be either win/win, win/neutral, or neutral/win, with neutral/neutral also being acceptable.

But this is where it gets messy. For by competing, we can almost always guarantee that someone loses. But by cooperating, we can't be so sure that someone will gain. Why? Because cooperation often fails, even when the participants sincerely seek to cooperate. We are none too perfect. We may fail to articulate our own needs (conditions for benefit). We may fail to understand the other's. With misunderstandings come hurt, and with hurt comes suspicion. Even when understanding is achieved, we may yet lack the resources or skills to arrive at a situation of mutual gain. And while this might yield a neutral result for either party, it might just as easily result in a loss.

Besides competition and cooperation, we might also consider the motives of altruism and indifference. "Altruism" here means a genuine sacrifice on someone's part, and therefore a loss is likely even if it is voluntary. If both parties' goal is altruism, then each will lose (see O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi") unless one can out-sacrifice the other preemptively (a kind of competition) or negotiate the terms of their generosity such that true cooperation obviates the need of any sacrifice.

As for indifference, by definition it does little to alter the random dice throw on Pareto's parlor table. Although we may say with some confidence that when indifference enters into any encounter, a win/win situation is hardly likely. Indifference may favor neutral outcomes, but just barely.

At this point we may ask, is any strategy a clear winner? Can we adopt either competition, cooperation, altruism or indifference as universally appropriate?

Probably not. As already noted, indifference is barely useful, though it may slightly favor neutral outcomes over harmful ones. Altruism may seem noble, but its outcomes are little different from competition, despite the fact that the motives are polar opposites.

This brings us back to competition and cooperation as our primary candidates. How then, to choose?

Consider... competition is less about winning and more about making others lose. This has its place, but its advantage is only relative to another's disadvantage, and so may not be conducive to true gain. For this reason a pragmatist will always seek to avoid a fight unless victory is assured, and victory assures a profit.

These conditions rarely being certain, cooperation is the better risk. If loss is to be avoided, cooperation seems to be a good default.

But rather than placing all our energy in one strategy, we should diversify our portfolio.We would do well to recognize when cooperation is not possible, to learn to fight and win while minimizing harm to the defeated. Or if necessary, to sacrifice unflinchingly, but no more than what is needed, and never with any delusions of glory.

A comprehensive strategy would require real discipline, rigorous study, and diligent practice. It would need to be sophisticated enough to change modalities as circumstances dictate, and powerful enough to dictate circumstances whenever possible. Outcomes would be controlled.

There are only so many possible results from any encounter. Random odds actually appear to favor selfish behavior, while tolerating loss within the system. Yet a modified form of selfishness, or enlightened self-interest, makes it possible to shift the odds and lessen the likelihood of loss. This is called love.

With the awareness and discipline of love, no encounter is truly random.
Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin, Texas USA
Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.
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Old 01-13-2008, 10:19 AM   #2
SeiserL's Avatar
Location: Florida Gulf coast
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 3,902
Re: Pareto Optimum

Nicely stated. With seven-degrees of separation, we are all connected, therefore not random.
IMHO, what is especially not random is the outcome of an encounter since we are a very intregal part of that encounter. While there are many thing outside our control, who we are in the encounter is certainly not one of them.
Awareness of the connected and self-control can make incredible differences.
Rei, Domo.

Lynn Seiser PhD
Yondan Aikido & FMA/JKD
We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 01-15-2010, 01:28 PM   #3
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Pareto Optimum

Author's Update:

I was unaware at the time of writing that this same line of thought is already well developed in biology.



for a fascinating discussion on the dynamics of interactive relationships among various living organisms.

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Old 01-15-2010, 06:45 PM   #4
Dojo: Aiki Shoshinkan, Aiki Kenkyukai
Join Date: Oct 2001
Posts: 813
Re: Pareto Optimum

Yet with everything, nothing is two dimensional. Most cases we have varying levels of gain and loss on each party. i.e. we have A simultaneously gaining something whilst losing something else and the same for B.

That's why life is an art not science and we shouldn't try to live that way in any case. It we still do, we'd be better off as ants.

Draw strength from stillness. Learn to act without acting. And never underestimate a samurai cat.
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Old 05-06-2011, 04:57 PM   #5
graham christian
Dojo: golden center aikido-highgate
Location: london
Join Date: Oct 2010
Posts: 2,697
Re: Pareto Optimum

Hi Ross.
Just following your suggestion and glad I did. Yes I like the thought process here and mulling over these sorts of things is a passion of mine.

I can indeed share some thoughts on the matter however I will have to limit them or else I'll be writing a book.

Firstly I will say that it's good from the viewpoint of quantity and thus we could call it quantitative logic if there is such a thing.

Myself, I differenciate between quality and quantity as a basic premise and would go so far as to say all quantity is the result of quality. So when you mention at the end love then for me you have mentioned there a quality which is of itself infinite and only limited in amount by the degree to which we accept it.

Now if we look at things from the view of quality being the cause or source of quantity then we enter a whole new ball game. Let's take love as an example.

Let's give it a beingness, an aliveness. Now of itself it is very happy is it not? It is inherently happy and always feels good. The concept of selfishness is non existant in love.

Now let's look at what love does. It shares itself, it is inherently sharing and all inclusive. It doesn't go away from in fact it joins and connects with. It brings about communication, connectedness, interchange. It comforts, relaxes, gives space to. You see where I'm going with this?

So I would say there are certain qualities which only have beneficial effects on quantities and indeed other qualities.

Thus it's win/win. It's all good.

So there you are, a few thoughts of mine condensed down to food for thought.

Thanks for the opportunity to share.G.
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Old 05-09-2011, 12:38 PM   #6
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Pareto Optimum


Thank you so much for taking the time to revisit one of the mothball articles.

Qualities like love which, as you say, cannot be quantified, are interesting. Robert Fripp had something to say about "qualitative action not being bounded by number," if I'm remember the phrase correctly. I think in aikido we are looking for the sweet spots where a small gesture can have a rippling effect, or a benign butterfly effect.

But without quantification, it's really hard to have verification. The risk of feel-good activities is not that they feel good, for surely that's a good thing -- but that our actions may not be having their desired effects.

It's a bit like the church-goer who feels like they're doing divine work and feels great satisfaction in regular attendance, but who does nothing to "feed my sheep."

So for me, I try to be careful in my thinking and speech to know when I'm talking about love as a feeling, and love as an action. Feelings of hope and desire and joy can inspire action, but only action will bring about meaningful change.

Love may be infinite, and it's heartening to know there is a source of endless renewal. But we express and experience acts or instances of love in moments, in places, and people -- all things bounded by time and space.

Perhaps one way to think of aikido is as the art of making the transcendent immanent, and the immanent transcendent?

It's all very thought-provoking, and I really appreciate the conversation.

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