Society is handcuffed in the Prisoner’s Dilemma: How fear, distrust and a lack of organization continually does us in

From Wikipedia:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

In this classic version of the game, collaboration is dominated by betrayal; if the other prisoner chooses to stay silent, then betraying them gives a better reward (no sentence instead of one year), and if the other prisoner chooses to betray then betraying them also gives a better reward (two years instead of three). Because betrayal always rewards more than cooperation, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them both to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads the prisoners to both betray, but they would get a better reward if they both cooperated.


The very next sentence in Wikipedia’s Prisoner’s Dilemma entry is “In reality, humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by a theory based only on rational self-interested action.”

This trend notwithstanding, I still have the impression that the reasonable fear of uncooperativeness on the part of others is among – if not the – primary reason why people do not act in the public interest more often.

Unions and organized collectives are an excellent way to get around this problem. When power is highly concentrated into one or a few well-coordinated sets of hands, disgruntled individuals in the lower ranks take a major risk by rebelling. If protestation is limited to just one or a few members of the rank and file, the establishment will easily destroy and dispose of these mettlesome few. But when the people are organized and thus able to communicate and coordinate, they can collectively amass a force that cannot be steamrolled so easily. Unions and organized collectives destroy the Prisoner’s Dilemma by allowing the prisoner’s to coordinate their next moves. This is part of why many in the Ownership class have historically been opposed to unionization. Wal-Mart, for example, has been tireless in its staunch opposition to staff organization. (Note: Unions, too, can be overly self-serving at the undue expense of Owners and/or third parties such as customers).


The Internet has played a truly massive role in enabling mass organization. Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Pro-Democracy Activism in Iran, Idle No More, Project Chanalogy (i.e., the protests against Scientology several years ago), …. Without the Internet, these movements absolutely could not have gotten anywhere near so big (if indeed they got off the ground at all). And those who did speak out would probably have accomplished very little and, in some cases, would have been more likely to have been blackballed by the establishment that they were protesting.

iranprotestThe Internet has helped to partially bridge a major set of inequalities between the ultra-wealthy and the rest. The first is access to mass communication. One no longer needs to have a TV or radio show, a newspaper column, ad money or key social connections in order to get a message out. It still helps a great deal to have those things, but now with online soapboxes like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook groups and pages, just about anyone can share an idea that could potentially strike a cord with others – perhaps many others.

The second is coordination and organization. Concentrated power is much more easily organized than a broad base of low-power individuals. The Internet makes mass organization, coordination and communication much more feasible.

Prisoner’s Dilemma type scenarios aren’t limited to rank and file masses organizing against powerful establishments. I believe that they also play out on much smaller everyday scales. Does anyone else get the impression that they personally – or more people generally – would be more likely to, for example, buy free range meats, shop local, give more money and time to help others, and so forth, if they were highly confident that nearly everyone else would do the same? In these cases, the fear associated with cooperating when others cheat isn’t that one will be blackballed (i.e., fired, exiled or locked up). It’s that they’ll make chumps of themselves, will make a notable personal sacrifice for essentially zero large-scale gain, and will give without getting back.

In the end, we end up living in a world where most of us act against our collective best interests because we do not trust each other. The distrust leads to cheating which confirms and promotes continued distrust.

The way out? Organization. Communication. Coordination.

This, of course, is no secret. Hence, it’s no surprise when media and political figures, motivated to maintain a cheater-based system which disproportionately favours them ap_occupy_wall_street_dm_120917_wgand their funders, act to keep people divided, distracted, confused and misinformed. This means, for example, misleading people into thinking that Occupiers didn’t know what they wanted (knowing full well that they did know what they wanted and that what they wanted was in fact what most Americans wanted). It means having a 2-party system of, by and for the Elite class, with a shared interest in maintaining a divided populace that spends most of its time bickering over things like guns, gays and God, distracting them from what they agree on: protecting social security, medicare, and medicaid, improving access and cost-effectiveness of healthcare, increasing taxes on the super rich, radically rethinking the war on drugs, sweeping campaign finance reform, and increased accountability in Washington and on Wall Street.

In a world of finite human, social and physical resources, staggeringly large and spread out populations, and disparate worldviews, departures from cooperation are going to happen. But we can do better than this…

How many of us would like to be able to trust our neighbours more? To feel less alone in the world? To feel like we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves that is for the greater good?

Thanks for reading. Now I’ll go back to doing nothing about any of this.


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3 thoughts on “Society is handcuffed in the Prisoner’s Dilemma: How fear, distrust and a lack of organization continually does us in

  1. Not sure if my case is typical, but for the most part collective goals are not something I necessarily care much about, at least in regards to the examples you suggested – things in Canada are pretty good. More often then anything else my efforts are focused on my own personal success, or more precisely personal ventures. The exception of course would be finding a small number of people who share this goal.

    I think in general north Americans or more specifically American’s ( your examples) are more interested in resolving personal over collective goals.

  2. Yeah, that’s probably true a great many of the times. I may have actually under-appreciated that when I was writing. I confidently assume that there are many people who fit under my description, but there’s also many who fit under what you described – and your group probably outnumbers mine more often than not…. But then again, people in the rank-and-file take their cues from the people and organizations higher up in society. If more politicians and powerful figures acted on the honest consciences, more responsible policies and moral campaigns would result and more people would buy in. But part of the reason more politicians and powerful figures may not be acting on their consciences is because they too are afraid of cheating among their competitors (e.g., in the States, if you don’t play ball with the big donors, you don’t get donations, and you lose; if all politicians refused to be corrupt, it’d be okay, but since some cheat, it makes it hard for others not to; like steroids in sports…)

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