The prisoner’s dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher while working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and named it “prisoner’s dilemma”, presenting it as follows:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
- If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
- If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
- If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).
It is implied that the prisoners will have no opportunity to reward or punish their partner other than the prison sentences they get and that their decision will not affect their reputation in the future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners will betray the other, meaning the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray when they would get a better reward if they both kept silent. In reality, humans display a systemic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games despite what is predicted by simple models of “rational” self-interested action.