The prisoner's dilemma (PD) is the leading metaphor for the evolution of cooperative behavior in populations of selfish agents. Although cooperation in the iterated prisoner's dilemma (IPD) has been studied for over twenty years, most of this research has been focused on strategies that involve nonlearned behavior. Another approach is to suppose that players' selection of the preferred reply might be enforced in the same way as feeding animals track the best way to feed in changing nonstationary environments. Learning mechanisms such as operant conditioning enable animals to acquire relevant characteristics of their environment in order to get reinforcements and to avoid punishments. In this study, the role of operant conditioning in the learning of cooperation was evaluated in the PD. We found that operant mechanisms allow the learning of IPD play against other strategies. When random moves are allowed in the game, the operant learning model showed low sensitivity. On the basis of this evidence, it is suggested that operant learning might be involved in reciprocal altruism.

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