Richard Dawkins, Divorce, and the Zero Sum Game

The attachment system is the brain system that governs all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss.  A child rejecting a parent is a problem in the love-and-bonding system of the brain; the attachment system. 

A child’s rejection of a parent surrounding divorce is an attachment-related pathology.

That is a meme structure.

We are changing systems.

We are changing how the mental health system responds to attachment-related family pathology surrounding divorce.

We are changing how the legal system responds to attachment-related family pathology surrounding divorce.

To understand more deeply how this foundational change in systems is being accomplished, it benefits to know about Richard Dawkins and his construct of memes.  Currently the Internet has adopted the term “meme” to describe an idea, typically captured in a picture combined with a few words.  It was Richard Dawkins, however, in his book The Selfish Gene, who first introduced the construct of meme structures as representing units of culturally relevant information that are transmitted from brain to brain (i.e., memes are self-replicating units of information).

Dawkins: The Selfish Gene
Chapter 11. Memes: the new replicators

According to Dawkins, meme structures are units of information that are passed from brain to brain; they self-replicate.  As self-replicating entities, memes are subject to the same forces, laws, and principles of evolution as genes are for physical development. 

I find this to be an intriguing idea and one that has been quite productive in my professional work as a clinical psychologist, particularly with regard to conceptualizing the inter-generational transmission of the attachment-related family pathology of “parental alienation.”

I first read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene decades ago.  I found the ideas expressed in The Selfish Gene so intellectually provocative that I remember returning to the book to re-read it several times within the span of a couple of years.  These ideas have been actively percolating in my brain ever since, altering, developing, and transforming my ideas and perception.  The meme-structures provided in The Selfish Gene have proven to be highly productive.

As we move more fully into this time of systems change, I’ve been refreshing myself on the principles and ideas of The Selfish Gene.  In wandering through Chapter 12 on the development of cooperation, I came across a description by Dawkins of divorce in the legal system.  When I first read this book, the topical content for this example wasn’t particularly important to me because I wasn’t working with high-conflict divorcing families in the legal system.  At the time I first read the book I was in the fields of ADHD and early childhood mental health, not high-conflict divorce.  I took the broader point Dawkins was making about the evolution of zero sum and nonzero sum activities in human social interaction, but the specific content of the example he used, about divorce in the legal system, flowed in and flowed out of memory.

In re-reading his example now, however, in the context of my current work with high-conflict divorce in the legal system, the observations of Dawkins regarding the application of game theory to high-conflict divorce in the legal system are striking and intriguing, and I want to highlight them for consideration as we create systems change.

In Chapter 12 Dawkins is making a point about the development of Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS) in a social context, and the role of game theory in illuminating the development of cooperation and selfishness, in particular a game called the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ which highlights the development and subsequent stability of cooperation and selfish strategies for how we socially relate to each other. 

The prisoner’s dilemma game introduces the constructs of a zero sum game in which one person winning causes the other person to lose (win-lose strategies; selfishness), and nonzero sum games where both players can win (win-win strategies; cooperation).  Dawkins uses the example of divorce in the legal system to highlight the evolutionary development of zero sum and nonzero sum activities. 

Re-reading his example now, twenty or so years later, I find the description of divorce in the legal system offered by Dawkins to be intriguing.

From Dawkins:

“In what are called ‘civil disputes’ there is often in fact great scope for cooperation. What looks like a zero sum confrontation can, with a little goodwill, be transformed into a mutually beneficial nonzero sum game.  Consider divorce. A good marriage is obviously a nonzero sum game, brimming with mutual cooperation.  But even when it breaks down there are all sorts of reasons why a couple could benefit by continuing to cooperate, and treating their divorce, too, as nonzero sum.  As if child welfare we’re not a sufficient reason, the fees of two lawyers will make a nasty dent in the family finances. So obviously a sensible and civilized couple begin by going together to see one lawyer, don’t they?”

“Well, actually no. At least in England and, until recently, in all 50 states of the USA, the law, or more strictly – and significantly – the lawyers’ own professional code, doesn’t allow them to. Lawyers must accept only one member of a couple as a client. The other person is turned from the door, and either has no legal advice at all or is forced to go to another lawyer. And that is when the fun begins. In separate chambers but with one voice, the two lawyers immediately start referring to ‘us’ and ‘them.’  ‘Us’, you understand, doesn’t mean me and my wife; it means me and my lawyer against her and her lawyer. When the case comes to court, it is actually listed as ‘Smith’ versus ‘Smith’!  it is assumed to be adversarial, whether the couple feel adversarial or not, whether or not they have specifically agreed that they want to be sensibly amicable. And who benefits from treating it as an ‘I win, you lose’ tussle? The chances are, only the lawyers.”

“The hapless couple have been dragged into a zero sum game. For the lawyers, however, the case of Smith v. Smith is a nice fat nonzero sum game, with the Smiths providing the payoffs and the two professionals milking their clients’ joint account in elaborately coded cooperation.  One way in which they cooperate is to make proposals that they both know the other side will not accept. This prompts a counter proposal that, again, both know is unacceptable. And so it goes on. Every letter, every telephone call exchanged between the cooperating ‘adversaries’ adds another wad to the bill.  With luck, this procedure can be dragged out for months or even years, with costs mounting in parallel.  The lawyers don’t get together to work all this out. On the contrary, it is ironically their scrupulous separateness that is the chief instrument of their cooperation at the expense of the clients. The lawyers may not even be aware of what they’re doing. Like the vampire bats that we shall meet in a moment, they’re playing to well-ritualized rules.  The system works without any conscious overseeing or organizing. It is all geared to forcing us into zero sum games. Zero sum for the clients, very much nonzero sum for the lawyers.”

(Dawkins, 1989, p. 221-222)

The solution using an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) addresses this by teaming the treating family therapist with an amicus attorney representing the court.  This brings the solution to the family conflict under the purview of a single mental health professional (the AB-PA Certified therapist) cooperating with a single legal professional (the AB-PA Knowledgeable amicus attorney), altering the current adversarial context of the legal system’s response to divorce.

In re-reading The Selfish Gene, I thought the comments of Dawkins about divorce in the legal system warranted note.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857


2 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins, Divorce, and the Zero Sum Game”

  1. Up to that point, now almost seven years ago, the lowest feeling I had ever experienced was when I was graced with the honorific “defendant”.

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