When Immediate Responses Fail

37 Pages Posted: 7 May 2018 Last revised: 23 Mar 2019

See all articles by Shai Dothan

Shai Dothan

University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts

Date Written: April 19, 2018


Tit-for-tat is a strategy of immediate and proportional responses. Game theorists showed that this strategy often leads to fruitful cooperation. Indeed, many legal regimes resemble a tit-for-tat strategy and benefit from its ability to avoid unnecessary conflicts. But in situations of uncertainty — when actors cannot be sure about the actions of their adversaries — a tit-for-tat strategy would destroy cooperation and lead to continuous clashes. Because tit-for-tat responds immediately, a single mistake about the intentions of the adversary can lead to retaliation and start an endless string of counter-strikes. When uncertainty prevails, a strategy of many-tits-for-many-tats is optimal. Actors applying this strategy study the actions of their adversary over multiple rounds without issuing an immediate response. Only when the actor is convinced that the adversary intentionally defects, the actor will issue a disproportionately forceful response. The laws of war, criminal law, and international sales law all face some situations of uncertainty. This paper argues that each of these legal fields adopts a strategy of many-tits-for-many-tats to address conditions of acute uncertainty.

Keywords: game theory, tit-for-tat, proportionality

JEL Classification: C7, K33

Suggested Citation

Dothan, Shai, When Immediate Responses Fail (April 19, 2018). Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 51, No. 1075, 2018, University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2018-62, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3165499

Shai Dothan (Contact Author)

University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts ( email )

Studiestraede 6
Copenhagen, DK-1455

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