Prisoner’s Dilemma as a proxy for trust

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a simple game which illustrates a very interesting type of situation we can find ourselves in any day. It goes like this:

Two members of a gang are imprisoned. Each one is in isolation from the other, with no means of communication. Each is offered a deal:

  • If only one of them confesses, they go free while the other does three years
  • If both confess, they do two years each
  • If neither confess, they do a year each

The main point is that if you confess, you may go free, but cost the group three years. If both confess, neither go free, and it costs the group four years. If neither talk, the group loses only two years, although it is certain that both will go to jail.

Daily life has many such situations in which someone can win personally while making the group lose; crooked politicians or police officers; salespeople; employers and employees. We live in a world of conflicting incentives.

Anecdotally (per a Buzzfeed video) People are less likely, when playing the game, to ‘fess up against someone they know, but more likely to do it when set up with someone they don’t know. This makes sense, as someone you know has more weight for you emotionally than someone you don’t.

I have found a good proxy to how much I could trust someone in a certain situation is to think about how they’d act if we were playing the game. Luckily, often in life we have the chance to communicate with the other people involved in our dilemmas; I’ve not yet had the presence of mind to try and work against a forecasted negative in a prisoner’s dilemma-like situation, but it may be worth a try.

In any case, this simple excercise and the observations on people’s behavior regarding strangers is one of the factors that make me think that maybe we shouldn’t trust strangers with choosing for us the way it often happens in representative democracies… because even if we may feel invested in them from watching them on TV or reading about them in the newspapers, odds are they don’t know us, thus can’t empathize, thus don’t have a strong incentive to fight the other strong incentives from being in a position of power – namely, benefit themselves and people they do feel strongly about.

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