Thursday, August 19, 2010

Prisoner's Dilemma

And now we get to the first real post!  I won't be putting one of these up every day, but I'm excited to get a real start, so here goes.

One concept that shows up in a lot of the notes I was filing yesterday is the idea of the "Prisoner's Dilemma".  My notes on the subject look like this:

Did you get that?  Probably not, so a better explanation goes like this.  The Prisoner's Dilemma is a metaphor for how two parties deal with one another.  It starts with two prisoners who are arrested and interrogated separately.  You can kind of see the results in the drawing above-- the best solution is for neither of them to give away any information.  If they both keep their mouth shut (cooperate), the prosecution has little to work with and they only get a year of jail time each.  If they both go to the opposite extreme and rat the other out (defect), they each get 5 years.  However, the worst option is if one cooperates and the other one defects.  The one who turns state's witness (defects) gets off completely scot free, while the one who holds his tongue (cooperates) gets a life sentence.  Because one prisoner doesn't know what the other will do, the rational choice for them is to turn on the other so the worst punishment they can get is 5 years and the best is freedom.  If they don't talk, there's a chance that they'll get a life sentence.

In my experience, this metaphor is most commonly used to describe the security problems nations face on a global scale.  Because they never really know for sure what another nation is doing or is going to do, they have to make independent decisions on how they should behave.  The Prisoner's Dilemma applies to politics most dramatically in the idea of an arms race.  During an arms race, it is dangerous to stockpile weapons, because, let's face it, having that much destructive power is rarely a good idea.  On top of that, building your arms stockpile will drive the opposing nation to increase theirs as well (hence why it's call a race).  However, it's even worse to "cooperate" and let another country "defect", so that they build an arsenal while you have absolutely nothing with which to defend yourself.

This concept comes up so much in politics classes and game theory that I actually never forgot it, but I was gratified the other day to see it used in this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic.  The comparison of Bentham and Jesus was a nice break from SMBC's usual stock of inappropriate jokes, although those are pretty funny too.

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