You’ve committed a crime. You and your co-conspirator have been nabbed, but fortunately, there’s not enough evidence to put you both away for the time you deserve. You’ll be sentenced to just one year in prison. Unless, that is, you turn on your criminal associate, who will take the fall for a three-year sentence, while you walk free. The one catch: the prosecution have offered your partner the same Faustian bargain. If you both keep your mouths closed, you’ll each serve a year. But if you both spill the beans trying to profit at the expense of your partner, you both get two-year sentences. No conferring — you’re both in separate cells. What do you decide?
This is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, first framed in 1950 by mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher, and later given its evocative name by Albert Tucker. In its original form, the best option for both parties would be to each adopt a ‘no-squeal’ policy — in other words, cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. But if you think your partner is a bit of a soft touch who’s likely to cooperate, then as an individual, the option of betraying them (or defecting) becomes almost too tempting to pass up. Except, of course, that your partner could be thinking along exactly the same lines, which would lead to both of you getting a longer sentence than if you just cooperated. But do you cooperate, knowing that your compatriot might end up taking you for the sucker? Continue reading “The prisoner’s dilemma — how cooperation leads to “survival of the fastest””