A Dastardly Application of the Prisoner's Dilemma

Illustration for article titled A Dastardly Application of the Prisoner's Dilemma

The following “opportunity” appears in a survey posted on a University of Maryland domain. We don’t know what class this problem was intended for (given its nature, we’d guess maths, econ, or psych). What we do know is we like this teacher’s style.


The problem is a multi-player variation on the classic two-person prisoner’s dilemma, one in a handful of games designed to illustrate how individuals, by drawing on a common resource out of self-interest, can behave contrary to the best interests of society by collectively depleting the shared resource. (The larger concept was described by ecologist Garret Hardin in an influential essay, published in Science in 1968, as “the tragedy of the commons.”)

“The prisoner’s dilemma game fascinates scholars,” Nobel prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom wrote in her book Governing the Commons. “The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beings can achieve rational results.”

Richmond Campbell gives a slightly graver description in the book Paradoxes of Rationality and Cooperation. “Quite simply, these paradoxes cast doubt our understanding of rationality and, in the case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, suggest that it is impossible for rational creatures to cooperate,” he writes. “Thus, they bear directly on fundamental issues in ethics and political philosophy and threaten the foundations of the social sciences”—and also, it seems, your grade in Econ 101.

H/t @shaunhin

Contact the author at rtgonzalez@io9.com.


I think it would depend on how I felt I did on the test/paper. If I think I did amazing, I’d put down for 6 points. Because it doesn’t matter if I get them.

If I needed the points, or I felt others in the class did, I’d put down for 2 points.

If the teacher is the only one that knows, then they could decide if it was over or under the threshold no matter what the real numbers were, but I have a feeling everyone would be talking after the test/paper to find out.