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 ­čÖé

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The Great Madiba*

I have previously mentioned on this blog that I have a bit of a thing for Nelson Mandela. I try not too bring this up too much, but when you happen to think that someone was the greatest human who has ever lived then it can be a touch tricky. I also promised myself that I would not do another 1 man adulation-fest for a while either, but today happens to be his ninety fourth (yes, 94th) birthday, so I felt that one might be appropriate.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the son of a Xhosa tribeschief, and was originally named┬áRolihlahla, or ‘troublemaker’ (the name Nelson was given to him when he attended school). South Africa at the time was still not far out of the Boer war, which has been a difficult one for historians to take sides in- the British, lead by Lord Kitchener of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ WWI posters, took the opportunity to invent the concentration camp whilst the Dutch/German descended Boers who both preached and┬ápracticed┬ábrutal racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1931 that South Africa was awarded any degree of independence from Britain, and not until 1961 that it became officially independent.

However, a far more significant political event occurred in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party of South Africa, which was dominated by white Afrikaners. They were the first government to come up with apartheid, a legal and political system that enforced the separation of white & black South Africans in order to maintain the (minority group) whites’ political power. Its basic tenet was the dividing of all people into one of four groups. In descending order of rank, they were White, Coloured, Indian (a large racial group in South Africa- in fact a young Mahatma Gandhi spent a lot of time in the country before Mandela was born and pioneered his methods of peaceful protest there) and Black. All had to carry identification cards and all bar whites were effectively forbidden to vote. The grand plan was to try and send all ‘natives’ bar a few workers to one of ten ‘homelands’ to leave the rest of the country for white South Africans. There were a huge number of laws, many of which bore a striking┬áresemblance┬áto those used by Hitler to segregate Jews, to enforce separation (such as the banning of mixed marriages), and even a system to be up- (or even down-) graded in rank.

Mandela was 30 when apartheid was introduced, and began to take an active role in politics. He joined the black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) and began to oppose the apartheid system. He originally stuck to Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest and was arrested several times, but he became frustrated as protests against the government were brutally opposed and he began to turn to more aggressive measures. In the early sixties he co-founded and lead the ANC’s militant (some would say terrorist) wing, coordinating attacks on symbols of the Apartheid regime. This mainly took the form of sabotage attacks against government offices & such (he tried to avoid targeting or hurting people), and Mandela later admitted that his party did violate human rights on a number of occasions. Mandela was even forbidden to enter the United States without permission until 2008, because as an ANC member he had been classified a terrorist.

Eventually the law caught up with him, and Mandela was arrested in 1962. Initially jailed for 5 years for inciting workers to strike, he was later found guilty of multiple counts of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment (only narrowly escaping the death penalty, and once turning up to court in full Xhosa ceremonial dress). He was transported to the imfamously tough Robben Island prison and spent the next 18 years, between the ages of 45 and 58, working in a lime quarry. As a black, and a notorious political prisoner, Mandela was granted few, if any, privileges, and his cell was roughly the same size as a toilet cubicle. However, whilst inside, his fame grew- his image of a man fighting the oppressive system spread around the world and gained the apartheid system notoriety and hatred. In fact, the South African intelligence services even tried to get him to escape so they could shoot him and remove him from his iconic status. There were numerous pleas and campaigns to release him, and by the 1980s things had come to a head- South African teams were ostracised in virtually every sport (including rugby, a huge part of the Afrikaner lifestyle), and the South African resort of Sun City had become a total pariah for almost every western rock act to visit, all amidst a furious barrage of protests.

After Robben Island, Mandela spent a further 9 years in mainland prisons during which time he refined his political philosophy. He had also learned to speak Afrikaans and held many talks with key government figures who were overblown by both his physical presence (he had been a keen boxer in his youth) and his powerful, engaging and charming force of personality. In 1989, things took a whole new turn with the coming to power of FW de Klerk, who I rate as the South African equivalent of Mikhael Gorbachev. Recognising that the tides of power were against his apartheid system, he began to grant the opposition concessions, unbanning the ANC and, in 1990, releasing Mandela after nearly three decades in prison (Mandela holds the world record for the longest imprisonment of a future president). Then followed four long, strained years of negotiations of how to best redress the system, broken by a famous visit to the Barcelona Olympics and a joint awarding, in 1993, of the Nobel Peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk, before the ANC got what it had spent all its years campaigning for- the right for black citizens to vote.

Unsurprisingly Mandela (by now aged 75) won a landslide in the elections of 1994 and quickly took apart the apartheid regime. However, many white South Africans lived in fear of what was to come- the prospect of ‘the terrorist’ Mandela now having free reign to persecute them as much as he liked was quite terrifying one, and one that had been repeated multiple times in other local African nations (perhaps the best example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe went from the first black leader of a new nation to an aggressive dictator who oppressed his people and used the race card as justification). Added to that, Mandela faced the huge political challenges of a country racked by crime, unemployment and numerous issues ranging from healthcare to education.

However, Mandela recognised that the white population were the best educated and controlled most of the government, police force and business of his country, so had to be placated. He even went so far as to interrupt a meeting of the national sports council to persuade them to revoke a┬ádecision┬áto drop the name and symbol of the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby side, and a huge symbol of the apartheid regime) to try and keep them happy. His perseverance paid off- the white population responded to his lack of prejudice by turning a boom in international trade caused by apartheid’s end into a quite sizeable economic recovery. Even Springboks became unifying force for his country, being sent off to coaching clinics in black townships and being inspired to such an extent by Mandela and his request for South Africans of all creeds to get behind the team that they overcame both their underdogs tag and the mighty New Zealand (and more specifically their 19 stone winger who ran 100m in under 11 seconds, Jonah Lomu) to win their home World Cup in 1995, igniting celebrations across the country and presenting South Africa as the Rainbow Nation Mandela had always wanted it to be. Despite his age, declining health he would only ever sleep for a few hours every night (claiming he rested long enough in prison). donated a quarter of his salary to charity on the grounds that he felt it was too much, and had to juggle his active political life around a damaged family life (his second wife having divorced from him & his children having some disagreements with his politics).

It would have been easy for Mandela to exact revenge upon his former white oppressors, stripping them of their jobs, wealth and┬áprivilege┬áin favour for a new, black-orientated system- after all, blacks were the majority racial group in the country. But this is what makes Mandela so special- he didn’t take the easy option. He was not, and has never been, a black supremacist, nor one given to knee-jerk reactions- he believed in equality for all, including the whites who had previously not extended such a fair hand to him. He showed the world how to ‘offer the other cheek’ (in Gandhi’s words), and how to stand up for something you believe in. But most importantly, he showed us all that the world works best when we all give up thoughts of vengeance, and petty selfishness, and we instead come together as a brotherhood of humanity. Mandela’s legacy to the world will none be of his brilliant political mind, nor the education, healthcare or economic systems he put in place to revive his country, or even the extraordinary dedication,┬áperseverance and strength of will he showed throughout his long years behind bars. Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be a human being.

*Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa name, and he is referred to affectionately as such by many South Africans