The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic game theory question that goes like this:
You and your criminal partner are captured by the police.
You are put in separate interrogation rooms with no way to communicate with each other.
The police tell you that they have enough evidence to convict you each for one year in prison.
If you defect and tell the police your partner committed the crime, you will get no prison time and your partner will get three years.
However, your partner is getting the same speech. If he defects and says you did it, you will get three years and he will get none.
If you both defect, you’ll both get two years, because they have testimony from each of you against the other.
A chart of the outcomes would look like this:
Do you cooperate or defect?
The Dilemma In Society
Before you answer, let’s look at some examples in society.
Say you and your community share a park.
If you all pick up your trash, the park looks nice.
If you don’t pick up your trash, you do less work, but everyone else has to pick up your trash for you.
If you pick up your trash, but everyone else doesn’t, you have to do extra work or the park still looks trashy.
If no one picks up trash, the park turns into a dump.
Many social taboos develop around a prisoner’s dilemma, where one persons actions do not matter except in the aggregate. The same dilemma could be used for recycling, reducing your environmental impact, lying etc.
The way society usually handles such prisoner’s dilemma is to create a penalty for defecting. In the case of littering, there is a social taboo and also often a fine. While it might be worth it for one person to litter, it isn’t worth the shame and ticket.
Here is another:
If neither of our countries build nuclear weapons, we are safe.
If my country builds nukes, we can dominate you.
If your country builds nukes, you can dominate us.
If we both build nukes, we are in a nuclear arms race and neither are safe.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma was used to understand the Cold War. Because neither side could trust the other to disarm, both stockpiled nukes, which made each side feel unsafe.
The Dilemma In Politics
The Prisoner’s Dilemma can also be applied to politics.
Here is an example:
If each of us focuses on the issues, we have a civil debate.
If my side smears yours with fake labels and attacks, we win.
If your side smears mine with fake labels and attacks, you win.
If we both smear the other with fake labels and attacks, we spend all our time fighting and never discuss the issues.
Does this sound like modern politics?
How would you respond to such a situation?
Winning The Prisoner’s Dilemma
So what is the winning move?
First, the game changes if you’re playing more than one round.
In a one round game, from a pure game theory perspective, you should almost always defect.
However, most people don’t do that. Studies of the Prisoner’s Dilemma show that people cooperate far more than what a pure “trying to win” strategy would predict. This shows that people are naturally cooperative, and a good sign for us.
Plus, if you’re doing more than one round, it’s the right strategy.
If you and someone else are doing ten rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and you defect the first round, you can bet they’ll get you back by defecting the other nine, because you’ve broken their trust.
In a long game, there are only two times to defect: When you think your opponent will always defect or when you think your opponent will never defect.
If your opponent will defect every round, you need to take your score from three years to two and do the best you can.
If your opponent will always cooperate, then they are a doormat and you can walk all over them. (This is why very kind people sometimes get “screwed” in ways that seem unfair.)
It also means to correct strategy is to co-operate until people cross your boundaries.
Computers playing the game have found “tit for tat” to be a winning strategy – meaning that you co-operate the first round, and then do whatever your opponent did last round back to them.
Challenges of The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Of course, we are not computers. Sometimes our perception is not accurate.
If you’ve been told your opponent is absolutely evil, you might think they’ll never co-operate, and start defecting when they have actually been very co-operative.
If you have trauma, you might perceive your opponent as defecting based on your trigger, when they aren’t.
If you’ve been conditioned by abusive relationships not to have boundaries, you might co-operate with people who are clearly taking advantage of you.
In the real world, The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not as simple. It is a game of trust, and trust is frequently broken, especially in relationship with opponents.
The biggest challenge of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is:
People do not realize that they are in relationship with their opponents.
In the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, no one has more power over someone than their opponents.
Say your political party believes the other side is full of evil racist bigots (i.e. they will defect). You start smearing them with that label (you defect). At first they co-operate by saying “no, we are not” and take actions to demonstrate that.
However, you think this is just a ploy for votes, and continue the smear. On a long enough timeline, they will have to defect. This might mean using the same smears back, or not policing rhetoric that is offensive, but will get them votes. After all, if you’re going to call them names no matter what, why co-operate?
Is that immoral? Maybe. But this is politics. Do you expect people to do the moral thing when it goes against their interests and will cause them to lose?
Of course, if they start being actually offensive, this will accelerate the game. The other side will have to defect harder, by increasing their rhetoric. This doesn’t lead to a good place.
The way to decelerate this game is to acknowledge co-operation on the other side. If you defect, and the other person responds by co-operating, acknowledge it even if it is not the full co-operation you might want.
Whatever your issue is, if there are two sides to it then the Prisoner’s Dilemma has implications. Are you co-operating or defecting? Are they?