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What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

The prisoner’s dilemma is a popular concept in game theory that demonstrates how two completely rational individuals might not cooperate with each other, even when it appears it is in their best interests to do so. It provides insight into group dynamics and the challenges of fostering cooperation.

The Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma Scenario

The classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario goes like this:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is held in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging information with the other prisoner.

The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge; however, they have enough evidence to imprison both on a lesser charge.

Simultaneously, the police 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.

Payoff Matrix in the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The payoff matrix for the prisoners looks like this:

Prisoner B Stays SilentPrisoner B Betrays
Prisoner A Stays SilentA: 1 year
B: 1 year
A: 10 years
B: Goes free
Prisoner A BetraysA: Goes free
B: 10 years
A: 5 years
B: 5 years

If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 5 years in prison. If A betrays but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 10 years. If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison for the lesser charge.

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So even though A and B would be best off if both remained silent, the incentives set up by the payoff matrix push each towards betraying the other.

Explaining the Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma showcases how two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even when it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. In this scenario:

  • If Prisoner A stays silent, his sentence depends completely on what Prisoner B chooses. Betrayal by B means a long sentence for A.
  • If Prisoner A betrays, he can guarantee himself a better outcome – either freedom or just 5 years.
  • Even though staying silent has the possibility of 1 year sentences, the risk of a 10 year sentence is too great. The incentive is for A to protect himself by betraying.
  • Prisoner B faces the exact same dilemma, leading to mutual betrayal being the most logical choice.

Yet mutual cooperation would lead to a better overall outcome than mutual betrayal. This creates the dilemma.

Real World Examples

The prisoner’s dilemma has many applications outside of the literal prisoners scenario, any time cooperation would benefit a group but individuals are incentivized to act in their own self-interest. Some examples include:

  • Businesses – Competitors would do better cooperating on industry standards but are pushed to undercut each other.
  • Climate change – Countries are better off collectively cutting emissions but individual incentives push for maintaining cheap fossil fuels.
  • Friendships – Friends ought to apologize after arguments to mend the relationship but egos can lead to grudges.
  • Social media – Platforms would better serve society by cracking down on misinformation but are incentivized to boost inflammatory content.
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In each case, cooperation seems to benefit the group overall. But narrow self-interest sabotages that cooperation. This demonstrates the power and prevalence of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Game Theory Strategies

Scholars have used game theory to analyze strategies for overcoming the prisoner’s dilemma. Some potential strategies include:

  • Changing payoffs – Altering payoff matrices can change incentives towards cooperation. For example, harsher sentences for betrayal in the original scenario.
  • Repeat interactions – In indefinite relationships, cooperation becomes more beneficial than continual betrayal. This fosters gradual trust.
  • Third-party enforcement – An outside authority can mandate cooperation, through law enforcement for example.
  • Reputation effects – In repeat games, developing a reputation as a cooperator can be advantageous, encouraging cooperation.

However, these solutions all have limitations in various contexts. Truly fostering voluntary cooperation without outside incentives remains intellectually challenging.

Philosophical Implications

The prisoner’s dilemma has philosophical implications about human nature and decision-making:

  • It suggests humans are fundamentally self-interested, making cooperation difficult.
  • There are limits to the power of rationality – being rational individuals does not lead to group cooperation.
  • Morality does not cleanly map onto rationality – what is moral (cooperation) differs from what is rational (betrayal) in this scenario.
  • Personal incentives and social utility can be misaligned, undermining the public good.

These insights spark debates in ethics, economics, politics, sociology and more. The prisoner’s dilemma remains a touchstone across many disciplines.


The prisoner’s dilemma elegantly demonstrates how rational self-interest can undermine group cooperation, even when cooperating appears to be the optimal choice. This concept has had far-reaching influence across game theory, philosophy, psychology, economics, and other fields. Scholars continue working to understand the factors that can shift human behavior towards cooperation in multifaceted real world scenarios. The prisoner’s dilemma offers profound and enduring lessons about human nature.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are there real life examples of an actual prisoner’s dilemma?

Few clear cut examples exist, as real world relationships are more complex. But occasional cases emerge such as two suspects providing contradictory testimony in separate trials, aiming to implicate the other. Generally however real prisoners have more complex incentives.

What happens if the prisoners could communicate?

If prisoners A and B could make a binding agreement to stay silent, it would mirror the payoffs from mutual cooperation. But the dilemma emerges when that binding agreement is not possible, as in the classic scenario.

Can the dilemma lead to an endless back-and-forth betrayal?

Potentially yes, if the game is played repeatedly. This demonstrates why indefinite repeat interactions tend to build some gradual trust and cooperation. The betrayal option remains tempting though and cooperation is fragile.

Is the model applicable to relationships with more than two people?

Yes, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemmas bring added complexity. But the essential incentives towards self-interest over cooperation remain, just on a larger scale. Coalitions can form but are prone to defectors. The core philosophical insights translate.

Imran Khan

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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