Why the Prisoner’s Dilemma is Just a Game?

I believe I was first introduced to the Prisoner’s Dilemma while on my first journey at Hastings College.  However, I remember it best as part of Matt Ridley’s classic, The Origins of Virtue:  Human Instinct and the Evolution of Cooperation (1996).  I had the fortune to read this book in the fall of 2001 while attending Warrior’s Leader Course.  In this scientific discussion, Ridley proposes that social, organizational and communal development is evolutionary and not by rational human design.    

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a sociological tool used to examine human tendencies for cooperation and is presented as game theory.  In the “game”, participants are given the option to cooperate with each other, or to defect from the alliance.  If both participants cooperate, they both earn three points.  If both defect, they both earn one point.  However, if one participant defects and the other cooperates, the defector earns five points while the other gets the “sucker’s pay-off”, or nothing.  If we play only one iteration of this game, the rational decision is to defect, because with this selection, you can never be beaten by the other participant.

Game play strategy arises, when several rounds of the game are played and scores are compared to those of other participants.  The defector will still be able to guarantee he wins or ties his own match by defecting every time.  He will, however, have significantly less success than the participants who cooperate with each other.

When setting up an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is unusual for the participants to know how many iterations will be played or whether the other participant will defect or cooperate before they play their hand.  This knowledge can often effect game play strategy.  Variations in the scoring matrix to change the risk/reward ratio of the game can also cause participants to alter game play strategies. 

A popular strategy for playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma is “Tit-for-Tat”.  In this strategy, the participant will always cooperate, unless provoked.  If provoked, the participant should retaliate.  The participant will be quick to forgive and return to cooperating.

In addition to Ridley, numerous other sociologists and biologists have used the Prisoner’s Dilemma to help explain human and animal behavior.  The problem with using the Prisoner’s Dilemma to define real word occurences, is the games basic assumption that each participant cares only about minimizing his own risk or maximizing his own rewards.  The game relies strictly on rationally based strategies. 

Humans (and many higher order species) use both rational and emotional stimuli in decision-making.  Not all decisions are made on a personal risk/reward criteria.  Our decisions are often compromised by the risk/rewards associated for others.  We often care about the interests of others as much as our own.  When their interests do not align with ours, we are often willing to defer our rewards or take more risks to achieve their benefits. 

Another consideration is external influences.  The Prisoner’s Dilemma occurs in a vacuum.  Real life does not.  A loss in one situation can lead to rewards of a different kind.  The sucker’s pay-off that results from our cooperation may be complimented by rewards from external components.

Many scientists  continue to seek rational explanations for man-kinds emotion based decision-making.  They make elaborate arguments that what may appear to be emotional is really the result of logical evolutionary development.  They hold that the decisions and reactions that our ancestors made have been passed along to us, through our genes, from generation to generation.  These “emotional” responses enabled our ancestors to survive, allowing them to pass along the gene predisposed for engineering repetition of the same behaviors.  Perfectly logical!

I really wish, life was perfectly logical.  But the principle of “Survival of the fittest” is flawed.  In order to survive, you don’t need to be the fittest.  You just need to be fit enough.  We don’t have to (and usually don’t) make the best decisions.  Generally, our decisions are just good enough.  Less than perfect genetics have been handed from generation to generation for the history of time. 

Life is emotional and sometimes without explanation.


About Jesse Alber

Jesse Alber attained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Speech Communications with an Athletic Coaching Endorsement from Hastings College in May, 1993. From 1994 - 2000, Alber served in leadership roles in human resources, retail, and production. Alber enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000. He served as a Armored Cavalry Scout and Troop Training Manager with A 3/7 CAV 3d ID until 2004. Alber deployed to Bosnia in 2001 and Kwait / Iraq in 2003. Alber served in the Army Reserves from 2005 - 2008. From 2004 - 2010 Alber served as the Adult Education Coordinator for Central Community College and Executive Director for the Hastings Literacy Program. Alber returned to Hastings College in 2010 to study Computer Science and Web Design. He is currently emploed as a Programming and Web Development Intern with Servi-Tech Industries. Alber will complete his program of study in the summer of 2012.
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