Psychology, economic, law
and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or
more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize
Here’s an example of how
the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a
warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty
party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the
suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free.
Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they
are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one
to defect and incriminate the other person.
Larry is told that if he
co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out
free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been
offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the
three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse
Does Larry trust Carl
enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish
and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw
Both are better off
co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off
betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him
betray you first.
The Prisoner Dilemma is a
dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality
of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At
any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two
If both people are totally
rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the
irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person
won’t act in a rational way.
Some clever academics
(economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’
Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and
cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the
experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results
were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.
The researchers thought
the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The
result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game,
pair basis, and sequential game.
In the simultaneous game,
the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in
second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners
had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the
students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).
The telling test is the
simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent
to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of
people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that
says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The
Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he
came up with the Nash Equilibrium.
There are criticisms of
the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to
a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might
offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to
the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the
ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when
outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.
Another commentator has
suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to
co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite
conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.
Other factors might be at
play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be
the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying
cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture,
language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should
not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural
Beyond culture is the
environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation
is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at
a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military
prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced
interrogation methods are employed.
Would two Japanese
criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian
or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and
the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would
they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of
Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and
daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect?
Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that
influences the suspects’ decision.
The point is how we go
about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a
consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality,
cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between
the parties (and their families).
How we calculate our
self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the
individual, and the community.