The prisoners' dilemma. Are we all prisoners?

Essay by ralukutza10College, UndergraduateA-, May 2004

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Does meeting one's obligations to others serve one's self-interest? The logical answer as presented in many philosophers and humanists' views is NO. Hobbes considers the challenge of a "Foole", who claims that it is irrational to honor an agreement made with another who has already fulfilled his part of the agreement. Noting that in this situation one has gained all the benefit of the other's compliance, the Foole contends that it would now be best for him to break the agreement, thereby saving himself the costs of compliance. Of course, if the Foole's analysis of the situation is correct, then would the other party to the agreement not anticipate the Foole's response to agreements honored, and act accordingly?

David Hume (1711-1776) seemed to pose this same question in the so-called "Farmer's dilemma":

Two neighboring farmers each expect a bumper crop of corn. Each will require his neighbor's help in harvesting his corn when it ripens, or else a substantial portion will rot in the field.

Since their corn will ripen at different times, the two farmers can ensure full harvests for themselves by helping each other when their crops ripen, and both know this. Yet the farmers do not help each other. For the farmer whose corn ripens later(farmer 2) reasons that if he were to help the other farmer (farmer 1), then when his own corn ripens farmer 1 would be in the position of Hobbes' Foole, having already benefited from his help: farmer 1 would no longer have anything to gain from him, so he would not help him, sparing himself the hard labor of a second harvest. Farmer 2 cannot expect farmer 1 to return his aid when the time comes, thus farmer 2 will not help the other when his corn ripens.

This was the precursor of the well-known "Prisoners' Dilemma" (a game invented at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Science in 1950s), which similarly confronts people with logic of rational and irrational. The situation is as follows: Two prisoners, held in separate cells are offered a deal: the one who testifies against the other will go free, while the other one will receive 3 years in prison.If they both testify against each other , each will receive 2 years. If they both remain silent, they will both be convicted and serve one year. Thus, there are two alternatives: to cooperate (in this scenario, to remain silent) or to defect (here meaning to confess). There are four possible outcomes, which all depend on the partner's move: they may serve 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4 years (cooperation means to serve either 1 or 3 years, while defecting means to serve 0 or 2 years).Not knowing whether they can trust each other, the most rational thing to do is to defect in order to maximize the upside (0 years) and minimize the downside (only 2 years instead of 3). The outcome is consistently better for cooperation than for defection. Yet, the dilemma resides here in the fact that each prisoner has a choice between only two options but it is impossible to make a good decision without knowing what the other will do. Most likely, human nature will see as the most tempting thing: to always defect, but thus would score worse than if they both cooperated. In several cases this dilemma can be influenced by the so-called "shadow of the future:" knowing whether you will interact with the other person or not; nevertheless, this doen't change the situation of wondering what would be the best choice.

It is obvious that once you understand what this dilemma consists of you can see its applicability in diverse human experiences and situations. It has been interpreted in many ways: it can symbolize the conflict between individual and group rationality (if applied to more than 2 persons), it can be viewed as short-term decision making where the persons have no specific expectations about future interaction with the other person, it can also be interpreted as principle of ethics and morality, etc.

Further on I will focus on exemplifying briefly the applicability of this dilemma on common situations which people deal with.

Generally, there should be nothing easier or nicer than for a man and a woman to love each other honestly and peacefully; yet in practice, this turns out to be so difficult. Love implies sacrifices, therefore, making a sacrifice would be a cooperation and failing to make a sacrifice in return or being dishonest or infidel is a defection. There is a destructive force born on selfishness and distrust, which leads to defections in relationships. The game of cooperation and defection only begins after a certain period of time when both man and woman cumulatively get to know each other more and more. At a point they might discover that the other is a cooperator or defector. For example, jealousy implies a strong fear of defection. But if one knows that the partner is a cooperator why would one ever be jealous? Another example is when a marriage breaks down: custody and support issues are illustrative: the father wants to see the kids but doesn't cooperate (doesn't want to support them); in this case the kids become pawns in the game: "if you really loved me..." becomes "if you really loved the kids, you would cooperate, despite all my defections".

Politics is a controversial domain because it is dealing with most important issues of a nation; often politics are disappointing for many because of the games of people in charge. Politicians are most of the time practiced defectors in the prisoner's dilemma: the future has no shadow because it is never clear to whom one should assign the defection. Actually, politicians are playing two simultaneous games: with each other and with the voting public. Their game with each other tends to be a more cooperative one because the future casts a shadow; but the game with the voting public, as I mentioned above, is based on repeated defection because the public (lacking necessary insight in politics' going) finds it difficult to assign responsibility to a certain person.

Business is abundant with prisoner's dilemmas: employer- employee relationship, as well as vendor-customer relationship.

The employer offers a job. Both him and the employee are offering an immediate sacrifice: the employer trusts him with the key to the door, the money, confidential info, clients, etc and at the same time gives up opportunity to hire someone else. The employee gives up opportunity to work elsewhere, trusts employer to pay him, not to fire him, etc. If employee leaves after the training period, using the skills he acquired to work elsewhere, that would mean defecting.

Vendor - customer relation can also be tricky: a company sells calculators. They wish to expand into personal digital assistants (PDA's) and create a division to manufacture and sell these. Their salespeople are thrilled: the existence of the new division extends their range. Instead of being thrown out of the account by clients who need something more, they now have something additional to offer. They are playing the cooperation card, referring business to the PDA division yet trusting that it will not attempt to supplant them in their own accounts. But the executive that brought into run the new division does not understand that he has entered a web of cooperation. His salespeople never return the favor: they will go all out to convince a client who just needs a calculator that it needs a PDA. Moreover, because several clients have demurred, the employees are now asking their boss to manufacture their own line of calculators. Besides, PDA's are hard to make and to sell. Because they have played the defection card, all synergy has now been lost, and though so much was to be gained in cooperation, the original calculator business has now cloned an evil twin intent on competition.

In the realm of movies, most dark dramas are about prisoner's dilemma. The movie ends with a decisive confrontation during which the dilemma is noticeable: the players hang on the edge of a move, undecided as whether to cooperate or engage in an act of defection, which will definitely end the game and result in someone's death. "Family" ties in "The Godfather" series indicate the structure that is built through long cooperation in a morally barren universe. Acts of defection are bloodily punished as soon as they occur. An assassination attempt is made on Don Corleone only when, due to his age and peacefulness, the future seems to have no shadow. But the assassins are mistaken, because it is ultimately his son Michael who will restore the length of the shadow. The defection is punished in the restaurant where the "Turk" and his police guard lie dead in the marinara sauce. Later, when there has been more defection and bloodshed, Don Corleone tells Michael the way he will find the defector within his family: it will be the man who approaches him to arrange a peace meeting, a false act of cooperation. As the defector is taken off to his death, he apologizes: "Tell Michael it was only business."

To conclude, I think that the prisoner's dilemma is a simple idea, yet it has complex implications and great applicability. Each one is a potential prisoner, depending on the situation. Some don't even realize this, yet finding the right decision challenges those who do. The more you think about it, the more difficult you find it to come up with the logical, rational conclusion. Therefore, it is a battle between rationality and irrationality, between logical and illogical. What is logical is to know that the other is developing and structuring the same reasoning as you are. Thus he could do the opposite of what you think, yet you could do the opposite of what you think he thinks, but then again you can't have any concrete evidence of what the other thinks. This could be analyzed indefinitely without knowing how you could get the best out of your choice.

In everyday situations, people are faced with "cooperating" or "defecting", so they experience quite often this prisoner's dilemma. Most times they will use the common sense and a self-centered attitude to come up with a decision. Therefore most people act accordingly to what APPEARS to be beneficial to them.


- Becker, Neal and Ann Cudd, "Indefinitely Repeated Games: A Response to Carroll," Theory and Decision 1990

- Howard, Nigel, Paradoxes of Rationality, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press1971

-Kavka, Gregory, "Hobbes War of All Against All," Ethics 1983

- Kreps, David, Paul Milgrom, John Roberts and Robert Wilson, "Rational Cooperation in the Finitely Repeated Prisoner's Dilemma," Journal of Economic Theory 1982

- Poundstone, William, Prisoner's Dilemma New York: Doubleday 1992