The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

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…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.