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How To Solve The Prisoner's Dilemma

        posted by , April 09, 2013

It's the best known example of a hard problem in game theory.

The prisoner's dilemma is a classic tale that can be used to model decision making, negotiation and business challenges such as sustainability.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

Two members of a gang are arrested by the police. They are brought to separate interrogation rooms. The police have little evidence but are hoping one of the suspects will talk. The crime has a minimum 10 year sentence, they offer both suspects 1 year in exchange for testimony if they are the first to talk.

It's in the interests of both suspects to keep quiet. If they both keep quiet they will be free within a few hours.


The prisoner's dilemma happens frequently in real life. Often the prisoners talk and end up going to jail because they don't trust each other to keep quiet.

Prisoner's dilemma is a useful analogy for decision making, negotiation, politics and business. In many cases, people make bad decisions because they don't trust others not to do the same.


Prisoner's Dilemma & Sustainability

The prisoner's dilemma scales. If you arrested 500 members of a gang they would all go free if they all keep quiet. The more members you add to the gang the more likely at least one will talk.

The prisoner's dilemma can be used to model political problems such as sustainability.

With modern technology, it only takes one country to harm the global environment. For example, one nation can easily destroy threatened fish stocks in the oceans.

Let's say all nations sign an agreement to keep fishing of tuna to a sustainable level. If they all keep the agreement they can all keep fishing tuna forever. However, if one nation breaks the agreement an entire species can go extinct.


Logical Solution

Logically, the prisoner's dilemma can be solved with a strategy known as Superrationality.


Communication Solution

The prisoners dilemma highlights the importance of communication and socialization to decision making.

If the prisoners could talk to each other, the dilemma disappears — they'd simply reach an agreement with each other to keep quiet.

The more we discuss common problems such as sustainability, the more likely a rational decision we will reached.


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