Prisoner’s Dilemma

In the field of game theory, one of the well-known models is the so-called prisoner’s dilemma.

For example, there are two prisoners, A and B, in a separate room for interrogation. And they don’t have any means of communication between two. In this situation, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain.

That is either betraying the other by testifying their crime or cooperating with the other by remaining silent. It sounds good news for each separately at first. But both prisoners inevitably face the following dilemma considering the conditions.

  1. If both A and B remain silent, they will be in prison for one year due to insufficient evidence.
  2. If A remains silent, but B betrays A, then A will be in prison for three years, and B will be set free in helping the prosecutors.
  3. If A betrays B, but B remains silent, then A will be set free in helping the prosecutors, and B will be in prison for three years.
  4. If both A and B betray each other, they will be in prison for two years.
B stays silent
(cooperates)
B betrays
(defects)
A stays silent
(cooperates)
Option 1:
Each serves 1 year
Option 2:
A: 3 years
B: goes free
A betrays
(defects)
Option 3:
A: goes free
B: 3 years
Option 4:
Each serves 2 years

If both prisoners are smart enough and trust each other (or can communicate with each other), the best option is the first that both of them remain silent and share the minimum one year in prison, which is the condition of low risk and low return.

In reality, that is not the case. Each prisoner tends to take the condition of high risk and high return. That is to say, they accept the bargain and betray each other, seeing one’s own 50% chance of getting free. Then, both would end up with the fourth option for two years in prison.

The lessons here could be as follows:

  • Communication is the key. The reason why they face the dilemma is that each one can’t see what the other would think and take. If they can talk with each other and smart enough, they could find the best win-win (with minimum loss), which is the first option.
  • Seeking self-interest alone is destructive. In the Machiavellianistic perspective, seeking the best interest is, of course, to set oneself free. Even with the high risk, one would think to take this challenge. In this situation, the other prisoner is no longer one’s partner but a competitor or even an enemy. It is a zero-sum game – either you win or lose.
  • There is no such a situation that both are completely free. Therefore, if and when we see the higher perspective of optimization. Even for the best option, both of them have to be in prison for one year. Again, if the interest should be for both, not for one or the other, then only by accepting the partial loss, at least we could gain the bigger (even I could say “nobler”) win for all. We need to lose to some extent to win genuinely for all of us.

This model can teach us the value of altruism as well. Ironically, when you decide to lose for others, you could win as a higher entity. After all, what is the self-interest? The implication would differ depending on how we set the scale of “self,” that is supposed to win.

If you set yourself to the extent of your small ego, then it seems to you that everything and everyone around you becomes your enemies. And it appears that you must win a lot of battles. Your life becomes an endless series of conflicts.

If you set your self-interest in your family, then at least your family members are not your enemies. How about your tribal community? How about your country? How about your ethnicity? How about your race? How about your organization?

Depending on which scale you choose, your “enemies” would differ; hence, your battle would change as well. But then, you would always face the same type of prisoner’s dilemma in a different scale. There would still be the other entity where you can’t communicate with and fail to take the win-win solution, because of your destructive self-interest, believing you are acting rationally.

Jesus once said:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

Matthew 5:44

It sounds so naive and impossible. The implication, however, should be more subtle and profound. Again, who is your enemy after all? Often, you are the one who defines your enemy. And you think you can’t love your enemy whom you identified as your enemy.

And Jesus continued:

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Matthew 5:45

His point is that God doesn’t have His enemies. The universe, by itself, is the ultimate total entity. If that is the truth, why do we separate ourselves from what we call our enemies? We are all under Him, after all. And Jesus said as follows:

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others ? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:46-48

As long as we indulge ourselves in our worldly affairs, we can’t avoid encountering our self-defined enemies. That is reality. That is the way we see the world. We are in the isolated interrogation room, facing the prisoner’s dilemma, deceptively believing we are acting rationally now and then. What should we do? Let’s set our perspectives in heaven. As Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Then, we see all of us are ultimately and fundamentally, the sons of God.

Image by Ichigo121212

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