Cycling as Prisoner’s Dilemma:
Rhetoric as a Negotiation between Competition and Cooperation

Matthew Newcomb

Prisoner’s Dilemma

A professional road cycling race involves riders from different teams working together against air resistance and competing against each other. As the race moves kilometer after kilometer, the strategies change about when and where to share efforts and when to try to ride away or let others do the most work. A race can start to look like one long, rolling, iterated Prisoner's Dilemma--an important concept from game theory that emphasizes the difficult decision of when to cooperate with others and when to betray them, at least to serve one's own interests. The cycling race and Prisoner's Dilemma hint at a longstanding struggle in rhetoric between more agonistic and more cooperative approaches to rhetoric. The connection is perhaps more than a hint, and this paper argues that rhetoric can be usefully understood not mainly through argument, whether agonistic or cooperative, but as negotiation. Rhetoric is the constant negotiation between cooperation and betrayal along with the attempts to justify those decisions. I explore rhetoric as the negotiation, by many material and symbolic means, between the poles of cooperation and betrayal by first examining the Prisoner's Dilemma, then looking at previous connections between game theory and rhetoric and composition, and finally analyzing the rhetorical negotiations in the 2016 Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) cycling race. In this literal endurance tour of roads and towns in Italy, the riders cooperate for their own well-being and detour or separate from the group for individual victory.

That cooperative aspect of the tour may be fundamentally self-interested. In The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins famously makes a case for how the seemingly surprising levels of altruism can be explained through genes metaphorically trying to replicate and preserve themselves. In that explanation, he uses the game theory concept of the Prisoner's Dilemma. The name comes from one version of the problem, where criminals are caught and immediately separated. They can choose to cooperate with their partner by not turning the partner in for the crime or to betray their partner. The sentence each receives depends not just on the individual's choice, but also on what the partner chooses. Dawkins gives a version with players who can "cooperate" or "defect" with a banker who pays out different sums based on the combinations. In Dawkins' example, if both players cooperate, they each get $300. They each lose $10 if they both defect. If one cooperates and one defects, the defector receives $500 while the cooperator loses $100 (203). The logic dictates that it is always better to betray or defect. If the other player defects you will only lose $10 rather than $100, and if the other player cooperates, you will gain $500 instead of $300 (203-05). So why cooperate? Why should one person share food with another, especially if the person with the food is stronger? The answer lies in time and repetition. In nature and in social interactions, we often have multiple interactions with the same or similar others over time. As Dawkins says, the idea of a selfish gene leading to a world of "mutual assistance," whether in ants, bees, or humans, "none of this works unless the game is iterated" (224). He continues, explaining that, "The players must know (or 'know') that the present game is not the last one between them" (224). How many iterations there are or how far into the future the relationship must go is less important than the players not knowing the endpoint. As long as a player might have to work with the other later, then cooperation can become valuable. How is it valuable? If both players start defecting or betraying each time, then both lose ($10 in the version Dawkins presents), and if someone is betraying you, then you are likely to follow the logic of betraying back. However, if both players start cooperating, then they both gain a good amount each time ($300 in Dawkins' example, or lesser rent costs through sharing perhaps). The long-term relationship makes cooperation, or concern for the interests of others, beneficial to a creature, or that creature’s genes, in the long run.

What this Prisoner’s Dilemma implies is a tension between cooperation and short-term selfishness. It sets a context for interactions as always about immediate desires and long-term implications of those actions. Put another way, competition and cooperation are constantly negotiated forces, and rhetoric can be understood as the playing out of this process. Turning in your fellow conspirator or helping a colleague with a project are rhetorical moves. The moves can be done in language or other symbolic means, but can also be more overtly material, like moving away from someone or turning off a light. The example of the 2016 Giro d’Italia men’s professional cycling race serves as the case for exploring rhetorical negotiation as coming from Prisoner’s Dilemmas.

I turn to the example of professional road cycling for several reasons. First, it has seemingly contained situations (particular races or stages of races) for examining the negotiation between cooperation and competition; it is full of shifting Prisoner’s Dilemmas. In cycling, a key thing to know is that riding behind or with others saves a great deal of energy in the form of less wind resistance. Riding in front or on one’s own takes much more work due to air resistance. The main group of riders, called the peloton, rides together to minimize work done, while others attempt to get in the “breakaway” ahead of the peloton. They try to stay out front to win the day’s race, but have a much harder time with fewer people to fight the air resistance. Many temporary alliances are formed to give riders in the breakaway a chance to win, to bring the peloton back up to catch those in front, or even for particular riders to gain time on others close to them in the overall standings. Winning a race without the help of others is almost never possible. In a cycling Grand Tour, such as the Giro d’Italia, the racing goes on over a variety of terrains in twenty-one stages. Here the idea of a tour includes literal travel around Italy, with the speed of a bicycle providing a particular perspective—faster than on foot, but slower than by train. The tour implies a sense of cooperation; all the riders want to make it to the end together, but there is a struggle or competition within the tour between different teams and temporary alliances. The tour as race is a compilation of riders’ times over all the stages and points (in competitions along the way for best sprinter, climber, and young rider among others) over those twenty-one individual races. They have to be able to ride together the next day, and ultimately, the riders will likely meet in other races too. The overall winner is the one with the lowest aggregate time for the twenty-one stages. As a race with teams, the competitive and cooperative elements are built in, but one can see ways the negotiation moves beyond the fixed categories or expectations quickly. As a sport, cycling has significant symbolic and physical elements to consider as moves in the rhetorical negotiations going on. Finally, a secondary argument of this paper is that sport of various types is a significant cultural force, ripe with possibilities for rhetorical analysis.


Game Theory in Rhetoric and Composition

Before moving to cycling, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and game theory already has at least one connection to rhetoric and composition studies—a link coming out of the Cold War. The RAND corporation (short for Research and Development) is a think-tank that grew out of the Douglas Aircraft Company to provide strategy advice for the United States government, particularly the military, beginning in the Cold War years right after WWII. Numerous important scientists and thinkers worked for RAND, and it may be most famously known for the idea of mutually assured destruction as a possible deterrent to nuclear war. A lesser-known thread is RAND’s (slight) influence on rhetoric and composition studies through game theory. This article brings a more direct aspect of game theory back to rhetoric and composition.

One of the main approaches to analyzing strategy developed by those working with RAND is game theory, established through John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944. Von Neumann took his game theory ideas to RAND beginning in the late 1940s. In the book, they define a game by stating, “The game is simply the totality of the rules which describe it. Every particular instance at which the game is played—in a particular way—from beginning to end, is a play” (emphasis in original, 49). The highly mathematical book still leaves room for analyzing social situations, real-world conflicts, and communication situations as games—as long as one clarifies what the rules are. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, perhaps the most known game concept in game theory outside of the field of economics, where game theory took the firmest hold, was officially written up by Melvin Dresher and Merrill Flood in 1950 while both were working at RAND (see Poundstone).

Anatol Rapoport served as a consultant for RAND in the same time period, and used his game theory expertise, including work with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to write Fights, Games, and Debates (1960), which looked at the three title terms as types of conflicts. In the “Debates” section, Rapoport appeals to the work of Carl Rogers in a desire to create “empathetic understanding” (246) as both a good thing ethically and as an effective method of persuasion. Rapoport’s book, particularly the work on debates and the Rogerian elements, were picked up by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike as an important (and regularly quoted) basis for their ideas about argument in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Stacy Thorne articulates this connection between Rapoport and Young, Becker, and Pike in the context of an article on negotiation, explaining Young, Becker, and Pike’s interest in Carl Rogers through Rogers’ own work and in their use of game theorist Anatole Rapoport’s Fights, Games, and Debates. Rapoport draws a distinction between a fight, where one wants the opponent destroyed or gone; a game, where there is an initial cooperation with a necessarily present opponent; and a debate, where harming or tricking are not really helpful or valid as in the first two options (9-11). With the fact that we cooperate to some extent by being in society already, perhaps a game and a debate are not so different. Certainly many debates involve tricks, even if we might wish they would not. Later in the book, Rapoport himself refers to Rogers as a main source for his approach to debate, where he explicitly is concerned with the Cold War.

Thorne uses another game as her main example, describing the board game Diplomacy as a site of negotiation in order to discuss how Rogerian argument has often been used in a more persuasive vein than Carl Rogers approved of. Thorne says, “Rogerian argument is a type of negotiation that is like problem-solving, whereas, the negotiation that occurs between players in Diplomacy, or buyers and sellers, is more contentious and linked to traditional argumentative purposes and persuasion.” Cycling, like Diplomacy, is competitive, and would be seen as contentious and persuasion-oriented according to Thorne. What is missed is the time element. Competition and cooperation (or problem-solving together) are not permanent states. A rider might share work with opponents in a breakaway for part of a stage and then actively try to ride away from the same people a short time later. Cycling helps show is that the negotiation is not just between needs of the moment, but between working in more competitive or cooperative ways.

Rogerian cooperation, too, can have quite selfish interests in the long run. Rogerian arguments, in fact, seek to find that common ground where parties can cooperate, but for a time, and on one issue at least. It may also be a way to seek out future cooperation, but the larger point is the struggle between cooperation and competition. Put another way, the debates about whether rhetoric is basically agonistic or should be seen as a way to seek understanding and consideration of others can be reframed. Rhetoric itself is a form of that debate, using materials of all sorts to move towards competition or cooperation according to the needs, relationships, and possibilities of the moment understood in connection to past and future moments. One of Thorne’s larger touchpoints is the struggle between cooperative rhetorics that avoid persuasion as a goal and more competitive rhetorics that use cooperation as one, perhaps gentler and more effective, way to achieve persuasive ends. Thorne argues that Rogerian argument should not be connected to persuasion as rhetorical theorists (Hairston; Young, Becker, and Pike) have done. Game theory assumes rational and self-interested actors, so the idea of cooperation without some self-interested end in some way does not really enter the equation, and one could be hard-pressed to find those who honestly listen to understand others who do not also gain at least a psychological benefit from that approach. The rules and culture of a competitive sport like cycling push participants onto the side of cooperation for eventual personal gain (or persuasion), but does not treat this as a problem. Just as competition does not have to be destructive to another, cooperation does not have to exclude personal goals or gain. Game theory already has helped lead to Rogerian argument in rhetoric and composition.

Rapoport’s and others’ work specifically on the Prisoner’s Dilemma can further help rhetoric and composition make explicit the tension between cooperation and betrayal at the heart of rhetoric. Young, Becker, and Pike acknowledge Rapoport and his discussion that “a person will refuse to consider alternatives that he feels are threatening, and hence, that changing a person’s image depends on eliminating this sense of threat” (emphasis in original, 274). The threat context is no longer the Cold War, but the issue of negotiating between competing impulses—the collective and the individual—as Rapoport discusses (335-36), always go together. Rapoport was thinking of communism and western capitalism as the collective and individual sides, which both had concepts the other needed; in this article’s context, the larger notions of cooperation and betrayal stand in for collective and individual interests.


Agonistic and Cooperative Rhetorics

Rogerian rhetoric and the concepts of cooperation and betrayal or defection lead back to a traditional split between agonistic and cooperative rhetorics. With the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is no argument per se between these approaches. Instead, both are always present and always being negotiated. Rhetoric is the act of negotiating between and justifying agonistic and cooperative movements, words, and actions. Rhetoric as a negotiation between competitive and cooperative impulses brings out a background of evolutionary history, foregrounds ethical considerations, and expands understandings of rhetoric as going beyond the symbolic to the material—while maintaining a significant role for human agents and particular rhetorical acts. It is less a negotiation between two parties than it is between two general impulses that all parties are dealing with.

Patricia Roberts-Miller explains the split between agonistic and cooperative rhetoric. “For some theorists of rhetoric, agonism is rhetoric (Walter Ong, James Kastely, Thomas Sloane, and, arguably, Kenneth Burke), but a more popular approach is to distinguish between adversarial and collaborative rhetoric, dismissing the former. As John Gage has remarked with some irony, it is a convention in discussions of argument to set out a division between some version of argument-as-fight and a kind of argument that is more collaborative and less confrontational. As soon as someone sets up that dichotomy, Gage says, you can bet that they will go on to argue for the kind that is collaborative ("Reasoned"). Dennis Lynch, Diana George, and Marilyn Cooper similarly note that the rhetorical turn has been one that emphasizes collaboration” (585).

Roberts-Miller goes on to explore Hannah Arendt’s defense of agonistic rhetoric and “mistrust of consensus” (587), showing that agonistic rhetoric does not have to be antagonistic. She declares, “Arendt’s solution is the playful and competitive space of agonism” (588). In other words, perhaps rhetoric should be more like sport between respectful competitors. Entering the public space “is a risk in that one might lose” (589). Riding the race means one is likely to lose, but the rider can make her case for victory and move back and forth between cooperating and competing in specific actions to do so. Agonistic rhetoric or competition is the baseline for Arendt, as for Richard Dawkins, with cooperation as a powerful strategy.

To move to the cycling example for a moment, performance-enhancing drugs enter the competition as a breach of faith or trust in the debate. They are like a breakdown of respect in the public sphere. When a rider blood dopes, for example, basically adding his or her own blood to increase available oxygen, that rider goes into competition with the whole process. The basic rules that all are supposed to agree to and play by are a form of cooperation with enforcement built in. Break those rules (if you are caught) by blood doping or using performance-enhancing drugs and the cycling community will not cooperate with you for a period of time. In other words, there will be a ban or punishment. So for most games, sports, and perhaps societies there is an initial cooperation (about the basic rules) that makes the competition possible, and there may be a competitive reason for the game in the first place (to create an arena for personal gain of some sort).

Negotiating cooperation and competition has a back and forth like mediation. Wendy Sharer writes about Julia Wales’ idea of "continuous mediation" as part of Wales' response to the violence of WWI. Wales' approach asks for the warring parties to stay in constant communication with each other, using representatives who are not elected to only have their own countries' interests at heart (21-23). Wales' approach is a fitting one for thinking of rhetoric as a constant back and forth between cooperation and competition, and points out how communication keeps the cooperative options open much better, just like police officers split apart thieves in a classic Prisoner's Dilemma so they cannot communicate with each other and cooperate by getting their stories straight. What the cycling example helps point out is that this negotiation already is always going on, but the rhetorical actions of refusing to speak, refusing to work on the front of a race, or attacking someone (in sport or war) are all part of the negotiation. Those parts just emphasize the competitive side, while Wales is promoting cooperation. Sharer notes how the continuous mediation fits closely with the New Rhetoric of the mid-twentieth century, with a "shift away from antagonistic debate and toward collaborative conflict resolution" (23). The Prisoner's Dilemma approach suggests that just this difference in approach is what rhetoric is constantly working out.


Negotiating a Bicycle Race

The bicycle itself is not unheard of in rhetorical studies. Sarah Hallenbeck looks at Frances Willard’s work to describe bicycles as “materializing—enabling embodied performances of—particular arguments that reformers had long struggled to make” (197). With Willard, the act of riding the bicycle is an act making a case without words, which cyclists in a race do as well—albeit usually in less politically poignant circumstances. The bodily aspect of cycling also follows Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley’s 1999 call for more work on Rhetoric Bodies (their title) at a moment where “[w]ords have been mattering more than matter” (4). Subsequent writing on both athletic bodies (see Hawhee) and the turn back to material rhetorics (Micciche; Rickert; Barnett and Boyle; and Coole and Frost) encourage rhetorical possibilities for the elbow signaling a rider to come take a turn at the front or even for gravity itself as a type of rhetorical actor as cyclists climb a hill.

Beyond the bicycle itself and beyond materiality in general here is the idea of sport. One of the main reasons for focusing on sports and games is that they function as a form of human experiment. Each sport has specific, controlled rules, and one can observe behaviors and interactions under the influence of those parameters. For example, CLR James’ important work on cricket in the Carribean, Beyond a Boundary, analyzes both postcolonial circumstances and the relevance the particular actions or ways of playing on the cricket pitch itself. These in-contest actions reach beyond the sport and have a partially controlled context, allowing some rhetorical features to stand out. Players can experiment with strategies of all types, including social ones, without quite the level of risk involved in politics or family life, yet many take the sports quite seriously. For example, riding in a breakaway and doing almost no work to help the group is a fairly non-cooperative strategy. It may not go well, but the risk is less than not cooperating with one’s family or for a government to constantly betray other nations. In addition, as activities that cannot happen without an initial level of cooperation about the rules, while typically set up to be competitive, sports already have an interplay of that cooperation and competition. Of course, at times people break or seek to skirt the rules, and elements outside of the sport influence the game, showing the leakiness of all these borders. Cycling is important for this study because the rules and goals have made the cooperation/competition negotiation so central to it.

The public sphere of cycling is about safety and fairness. Fairness is understood as technology—including doping. This is basically safety as a way for people to not have to deal with the extreme end of cooperation. Keeping all of the riders safe is not a constant concern in the same way because of rules about weather and things like that. The fairness/technology side is about making it even by having similar bicycles, limiting body enhancers like steroids and blood doping, and generally putting a cap on the competitive moves available at the extreme end. The public sphere sets some boundaries on the competition and cooperation choices - although even these can be violated, just with more extreme consequences.

This is an argument for the value of games and sports for rhetoric. They are realms of play where ideas are developed, not play as deconstruction, but play as constructive. The negotiation between cooperation and betrayal sheds light on other areas besides the specific environment of cycling. The tendency for politicians running for office to shift between attacking opponents in a primary and restrain from attacking too much fits with that desire for immediate gains (votes) and long-term cooperative benefits (for that particular political party in a general election). It is a reminder of those final acts of defiance to a boss or landlord when the job or lease is up. At that point, the endpoint of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is known. Finding ways to show more connectedness and a greater sense of future possible interactions could promote cooperative behavior. It's a strategy of always considering the possibility of future relationships

The terrain is decisive in shaping a cycling race. At the most basic level, a race or stage of a longer race (like the Giro d'Italia) is considered flat or mountainous. Of course there are many variations of these and races in between pancake-flat and all up and down, but, in a grand tour like the Giro, a number of stages will be set up as flat and designed for the best sprinters to try to win. The standard practice on flat stage is for a breakaway to form early on the course. Perhaps three or four riders will speed away from the main group or peloton and try to build as big of a lead as they can in the first two-thirds of the race. The peloton will work to catch them, using the advantage of greater numbers of riders to do the work and block the wind, with different teams racing rapidly at the end to set up their best sprinters for the last few hundred meters of a 100 to 250 kilometer race. The work of riders in the breakaway, of teams in the peloton, and the relationship between those two groups demonstrate this initial negotiation between cooperation and competition. Stage three of the twenty-one Giro stages is a typical example. Four riders, all from different teams (which have nine members each for this race), gained a gap early on and cooperated to build an eight-minute lead at one point. This cooperation took the form of riding in a line, just inches behind each other, taking turns on the front to do the work of keeping up a high pace through the air resistance. They would cooperate until late in the stage, with each knowing that failure to take a turn could lead to others no longer taking a turn working, and then getting caught quickly by the peloton.

The strategy here involves cooperation, but also a “do unto others” approach. Anatol Rapoport famously (in game theory circles) won Robert Axelrod’s first tournament of iterated Prisoner’s Dilemmas using a tit-for-tat strategy. His computer program was put into play against others, and it would cooperate if the other program cooperated and betray if the other program betrayed. His approach topped many more complex strategies, and tit-for-tat thinking is the baseline for many riders in a breakaway. If you help work, I will help work, but if you stop, I will not do all the work myself. The issue is to deal with free riders, which is actually a specific version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Poundstone explains, “The most common type of prisoner’s dilemma in everyday life is the ‘free rider dilemma.’ This is a prisoner’s dilemma with many, rather than just two, players” (126). It goes on to explain a public transit example. Not paying for tickets is great for the individual, but if everyone does it, the transit system won’t have enough money and will fall into disrepair. In cycling, a group on the road can have one or two free riders if there are enough people working hard in the front, but if too many take it easy, the whole move slows down and falls apart.

Back in the peloton, the teammates of the riders up front would just ride behind others, not doing any serious work that could bring the big group back to their own teammates. However, the two or three teams with some of the best sprinters moved to the front of the peloton to make sure the breakaway did not get too far ahead. Again, teams in competition with each other cooperated to make sure they both had a chance to win later. Often, riders talk to each other about who is doing the work or who needs to be doing more, but most of the communication happens through the act of sending riders to the front (or not), dropping off the front behind someone else, and regular elbow flicks to indicate that the next person in line should come take a turn. Robert Axelrod writes to explore the role of the prisoner’s dilemma with evolutionary cooperation. “In many biological settings, the same two individuals may meet more than once. If an individual can recognize a previous interactant and remember some aspects of the prior outcomes, then the strategic situation becomes an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma with a much richer set of possibilities” (92). While his focus is often foreign relations, the riders in a breakaway “meet” repeatedly during the stage, and they meet in many other races other days as well.

During stage three of the 2016 Giro, an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma took form again. Two of the main sprinters' teams brought the breakaway back to within about a minute with twelve kilometers remaining. At this point, Johann Van Zyl, one of the four breakaway riders, decided that cooperation no longer was the best policy; it simply wasn't working. He accelerated away from his companions, trying to ride alone to the end in front of the oncoming peloton. Etixx-Quickstep, favored sprinter Marcel Kittel's team, then took on most of the work in front of the peloton to bring back Van Zyl. The other teams, knowing that Kittel was favored, cooperated less with Etixx, hoping to improve their energy and chances at the end. Etixx caught Van Zyl with just under two kilometers remaining, struggled as other teams then jumped forward to bring up their sprinters, but ultimately Kittel won the stage.

This basic play of cooperation and competition remains self-interested throughout, as each decision is about how to help one's team win or gain some advantage, but the relationships can become more complicated than following directions from a team manager. Peter Sagan, the 2015 men's road cycling world champion, has won so many races with different types of endings that he can have trouble getting others to cooperate with him at all. Other riders will simply let the chasing peloton catch them at times, if he is not willing to do most of the work in the wind, thus tiring him out. The justification for not cooperating is that they have no real chance at winning without wearing Sagan out, so the mutual shot at a reward is missing. Other relationships come into play as well. Alberto Contador, a top Spanish rider, has been famously aided by fellow Spaniards and former teammates not currently on his team because that national loyalty or previous relationship was powerful enough for them to work to help him win instead of another rider. Those riders can them claim they were also working to help themselves or can extend the time frame of cooperation, saying it is a response to help given by Contador in a previous stage or race. Individual friendships can come into play as well, with riders more willing to aid an off-season training partner who rides for a different team.

The negotiation with these relationships is chiefly on the road, with positioning and leg muscle effort giving messages of cooperation and competition, but it spills over into language after the race as well. Often riders have to find a reason to justify the attack they made or the help they gave when it did not specifically follow standard expectations. Finding ways of identifying with others works as a way to justify cooperation, just as explaining risks to one’s own interests in the race works to justify defection.


Identification, Betrayal, and Cooperation

The identification as an activist or part of a group working around a common demand sets up possibilities for cooperative action, whether in cycling or other areas. Activist work is a form of cooperation that competes with other demands. Negotiation of identity parallels riders from different teams (who don't already have identity affiliations) finding ways to work together, taking on a common goal and temporary identity to meet a common demand against the peloton. Svensson, Neumayer, Banfield-Mumb, and Schossbock note that creating a common enemy is one of the first identity moves made (150), along with using "vague notions of us" (153). The cycling context has a very specific notion of us, but that identity is incredibly temporary, with the “us” turning to “them” late in the race. Framing their work as democratic action (157-58) was vital for the activities Svensson and his co-authors discussed, while the cycling requires framing actions, particularly afterward, as fair play. The race can be read by similar means as activist work because both are participating in this larger negotiation, not just of identity, but between cooperation and competition. Identity becomes a tool for building a bias toward cooperation.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma can parallel a Burkean rhetoric of identification, but from more materialist grounds and with a focus on self-interested action that is used to occasionally explain human ethics, but not encourage one toward a sense of justice or ethics. However, it differs from Burke’s concepts of identification and division by concerning itself with the extreme fluidity that comes from taking something action by action. In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, one might be fundamentally aligned nationally or with a family or partner, but the question is one of whether each action is cooperative or competitive. The action focuses increases the fluidity of connections, making it easier to both affiliate and disaffiliate from others, and treating rhetorical moves as actions toward cooperation or competition with others, rather than as identification or division moves. It is similar to a chicken or egg question. With the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the cooperative action, like a cyclist commenting on the hard work of a fellow rider or taking the brunt of the wind at the front of a breakaway, leads to identification as an effect. Although, previous affiliations make cooperative action easier. With identification, one builds the identity so people can act together. With the Prisoner’s Dilemma as the central concept, identification plays the vital role of creating relationships that make cooperation much more likely. Cooperative activity is the end goal.

John Belk argues that Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification is best understood “not as a one-time state to be achieved, but as an unending process that must be constantly maintained through negotiation” (365). Belk’s process focus is set against work on Burke that emphasizes the results or momentarily settled positions of identification. This Burkean process of identification certainly happens as cyclists join forces and then compete against each other on the very same day. This process of identification can be understood as part of the negotiation between cooperation and competition. Identification lets one cooperate easily and find opponents to compete against, and previous cases of cooperation make further work together quicker to get too. In this sense, identification and cooperation are almost synonymous, but cooperation emphasizes the very different types and levels of identification. In other words, one could still cooperate without identifying with someone else in a significant way. Competition and cooperation emphasize the actions, putting rhetoric at the center of negotiating those activities, while identification emphasizes status and identity more.

In an even more personal sounding version of cooperation and defection, James Kastely makes love and strife the key terms in a rhetoric of identification with the goal of self-understanding. He says, “For Burke, this complicated, messy, and foundational intertwining of love and strife makes the study of rhetoric into a philosophical inquiry into who (175) we are. And it is this philosophical inquiry into rhetoric as the ongoing effort to understand ourselves and be adequate to our worlds that, in turn, makes acting justly the central problem for rhetoric” (174-75). This identification and division split again focuses on who we are and figuring what we are connected to. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shifts that focus slightly to what we act as if we are connected to and what we work against. The question is not about who we are, but why we should cooperate. Taking the Prisoner’s Dilemma into the messy world of different relationships and identifications, and out of strictly rational actors with numerically defined self-interests, leads rhetoric to questions of acting fittingly before identity rather than after. For identification, James Kastely says the ultimate motives Burke provides are love and strife. This fits for questions of relationship to others, but in the greater focus on action with a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the parallel terms are cooperation and competition. Although it is all relational, both of those latter terms are ways of acting as opposed to descriptions of feeling.

Betrayal can take a less morally-focused form in Gregory Desilet and Edward Appel’s writing about Burke’s comic frame, which regards others as good but mistaken, rather than evil.  Despite the value of the comic frame for cooperation, Desilet and Appel remain concerned about possible problems for justice based on it. They say, “though much has been written regarding the comic frame’s usefulness as an attitude for preventing the worst ravages of the Iron Law, next to nothing has been said about the difficulties raised by the comic frame with respect to the need for identifying, censuring, and responding to wrongdoing” (342-43). The comic frame in the context of a Prisoner’s Dilemma sees a betrayal as simply a reasonable action done for the benefit of that individual, rather than a true betrayal as an act explicitly against another. This allows for strategy some have used in Prisoner’s Dilemma games of forgiving one betrayal, treating it as comic, but not two, which would be tragic and more like war. In situations where the competitive action is seen more directly as wrongdoing—such as an invasion—the Prisoner’s Dilemma does not create a context for moral censure. However, it does allow for direct action against that betrayal and a recognition that the non-cooperative acts need to be dealt with.


Physical and Verbal Negotiation

Despite the connections to identification, the Prisoner’s Dilemma focuses more on specific actions and moments. It has connections that can be too fluid for identification, and the action takes precedence over the identity. Stage 10 of the 2016 Giro serves as an example of extra cooperation, if not quite actual sacrifice, that required both particular moves on the bicycle and words to the press afterward. It showcases the physical and verbal components of negotiating cooperation and betrayal.

Gianlucca Brambilla led the race overall going into the stage, and typically, the leader would do whatever possible to maintain that position and the special pink jersey that accompanies it in the Giro. Late in the stage, Brambilla struggled and fell behind the main group of riders on a climb, but worked hard on the following descent to catch up. The third place rider overall took a lead on the other contenders and looked like he might move into the lead. Brambilla moved to the front of his group and took on much of the hard work in the last seven kilometers in order to help his teammate Bob Jungels, placed second overall, stay close enough to take the overall lead. Riding in front of a teammate to help pace them or take the air resistance is part of the job and usually requires less negotiation than working with other teams. However, the overall race leader can expect teammates to work for him, so Brambilla’s work was unorthodox and potentially involved self-sacrifice. There was something in it for Brambilla in the fact that it was his teammate taking the lead, so the work he did can be understood as self-interested just as much as Brambilla identified with his team. For the team, it was a strictly competitive action, but for Brambilla, there was serious cooperation done.

“‘It's unbelievable,’ Jungels said of his teammate's sacrifice. ‘Cycling hasn't seen this many times—this was very special. It shows the spirit of this team. We are a great group of friends. Two days ago I was happy for him that he kept the jersey in the time trial and now he worked for me and he's happy I've got it. It's an amazing team’” (Fletcher). The team identities and other affiliations complicate the negotiation between competition and cooperation. Brambilla did not feel that he could keep the lead on the last little climb, so he worked for his teammate. That work indicated a level of team cooperation that furthered the identification as a group. The relationship was strengthened in terms of seeing the good of the team as good for the individuals, and therefore mutual cooperation is more likely in the future. The act of working for Jungels was a rhetorical move done in part to create more cooperation. Jungels’ statements to the media after the stage serve as a verbal response to a physical action—but all as part of the same conversation. His endorsement of Brambilla’s action as “special” and unusual in cycling continues the push towards more cooperation within that team and further affiliation with each other. The cooperation led to an attempt at further identification.

The rhetorical negotiation involved, then, is not just to cooperate or compete in a particular instance, but to encourage or discourage future cooperation, and to solidify affiliations for easier cooperation and group competition against others. Each act can be understood like the iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma, where a top strategy in Prisoner’s Dilemma competitions is often a version of first, start by cooperating, then use a tit-for-tat system—or do unto others as they just did unto you. In this type of strategy cooperation begets cooperation, but there is a safety against being taken advantage of too much. Previous team activities and actions set up Brambilla to be extra cooperative to help Jungels, and Brambilla’s work on the road and Jungel’s words afterward to the press keep the cooperation moving forward. The rhetorical moves change the future relationships and likely cooperation and competition as much as they impact a particular situation—or stage of a bicycle race.

The words and pedals turned work together on other stages too. During stage 14, Steven Kruisjwijk and Esteban Chaves, even as main competitors in the race, worked together to push the race favorite, Vincenzo Nibali, further back in overall time. The two working together were racing against each other very directly, but other contextual factors matter, like who is typically good. They wouldn't cooperate to gain time on just anybody; it had to be someone close to them on time and expected to do well. As Chaves describes it, after Kruisjwijk made a competitive move and he followed, they simply fell into working together. After the stage, Chaves said, “Everyone was riding at their limits. Kruisjwijk started his attack, then I tried to follow. It was a steep climb, and then when we saw Nibali was dropped we started to work together. There's a lot of this Giro left. This is great but we'll see what happens tomorrow” (“Stage 14 Finish line quotes”).  No particular communication was necessary. The points were made by taking turns doing the work on the front of setting the pace, and by not making rapid attacks against each other. Here, the words used are simply an explanation of the negotiation of roles and movements that their bodies acted out. It felt appropriate to cooperate in that context, and so they did to their mutual benefit.

Stage 19 of the Giro is a case where the rhetoric of negotiation is about justifying an attack. Steven Kruijswijk held a substantial three minute lead for the overall race late in stage 19 (of 21). He was riding with the second and fourth place riders, Esteban Chaves and Vincenzo Nibali, when he crashed into a snow bank on a slightly foggy turning descent. The culture of cycling expects a certain level of cooperation with a crash. Riders are not supposed to accelerate away from the race leader when he is involved in a crash or has a mechanical problem with a bicycle. The idea is to beat the rider on the road, not due to that person’s bad luck with a flat tire at the wrong time. However, Chaves and Nibali did not wait for Kruijswijk to get a new bike; they continued their descent rapidly, making a rhetorically competitive move. One alleviating circumstance is that the crash was Kruijswijk’s fault. He failed to negotiate the corner on his own; it wasn’t some other rider knocking into him or blocking his way. But again, the physical messages on the bike were in direct conversation with verbal messages. Riding away from a crashed leader, or “attacking” in cycling parlance, calls for a verbal defense. Fourth place Nibali was gaining time on the third place rider overall, who was behind on the road during that stage, providing Nibali with a justification for not cooperating with the leader because he had to look out for his own competitive interests in trying to move up to a third place podium position. Second place Chaves could then keep riding, because he needed to defend his second place position against Nibali. These convoluted relationships are central to the negotiation of cooperation and competition in cycling. Competition trumped cooperation in this case, but there had to be a justification to not cooperate. In that sense, rhetoric as a negotiation of these two impulses (cooperation and competition) is not only actions and words that show which impulse is being followed, but is also the justification work done for that impulse.

Cycling is full of famous moments where a rider did not cooperate as expected and then had to justify that, ranging from Bernard Hinault attacking (riding away from) his teammate Greg Lemond, who was in the overall lead, at the 1986 Tour de France, to Alberto Contador attacking another top contender, Andy Schleck, when Schleck had a problem with his bike chain at the 2010 Tour de France. Hinault justified his action as a form of helping and pushing his teammate Lemond (see Moore), while Contador claimed not to know that Schleck had a mechanical issue (see Landau). The same sorts of issues arise when politicians fail to work together and spend time justifying why that had to be, but something material like a gated community is also a form of competition over cooperation, with justifications usually made in safety terms. This is not to say that justifications are wrong or ingenuous; Contador might really not have known about the mechanical problem, but much of the rhetorical impulse is the move to cooperate or compete and then to explain that choice.


Further Tensions

In cycling, the negotiation is often done as a physical rhetoric, while the language portion is then to justify the messages given in the race. One can see that as making more material rhetorics primary, but also creating a particular relationship between material and symbolic work in rhetoric, where the words give reasons for arguments or negotiations already made, but the two parts need each other. Regardless of the material aspects, game theory in general, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in particular, can work to further emphasize rhetoric as a negotiation between cooperation and competition. They can also point out different strategies (like tit for tat) as possible rhetorical actions, giving new angles on working together in sports and broader society.

Beyond cycling and beyond sports, many arenas work with this interaction of cooperation and competition. One regularly relevant one for rhetorical studies is political elections, particularly in thinking about primaries, where candidates have to compete against each other, but maintain some cooperation or often enough relationship to recover some cooperation once there is a primary winner to go against a common competitor in the general election. Any scenario where there is a limited resource at stake, whether it is victories, votes, beliefs, attention, customers, dollars, time, or something else is part of this rhetorical negotiation between competition and cooperation. Businesses in the same industry competing for customers but working together to improve their industry or siblings who must get along to some degree also each want individual attention from a parent work through a constant negotiation of competition and cooperation.

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Matthew Newcomb is an Associate Professor of English and the Composition Program Coordinator at SUNY New Paltz. He teaches rhetorical theory, first-year composition, American literature, cultural studies, and literary theory. His main areas of research include argument theory, affective rhetoric, design and rhetoric, theories of composition, and rhetoric in sports. Matt’s previous publications include articles in College Composition and Communication, JAC, enculturation, Rhetoric Review. He is currently working on projects relating design to rhetoric and tensions between chance and planning in rhetorical encounters.