Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 1

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is perhaps the classic 2 x 2 game. The scenario is simple enough to explain, but it seems impossible to find a way out of the dilemma. Here’s the situation: You and a fellow criminal have been apprehended, and the police want at least one of you to give evidence against the other guy. They tell you that if neither of you talks, they have enough evidence to put each of you in jail for a relatively short time. On the other hand, if you give up the other guy and he refuses to talk, he will be convicted and sentenced to a long term, and you will go free. Of course, if you don’t talk and he does, the same thing happens to you. If you both talk, you will each get a sentence that’s worse than you would get if you were the only one to defect but not as bad as when you didn’t defect and your partner in crime did.

You can summarize the Prisoner’s Dilemma payoffs using the following 2 x 2 grid.

Graphic showing the payoff grid for the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The central question is: What is the best way to play this game?

Obviously, it’s in your best interest to cooperate. If both you and the other person cooperate (that is, you cooperate with each other and don’t talk), you will get a sentence of only one year and minimize the negative payoff. The problem is that if the other individual knows that you are going to cooperate, he has no incentive to play along. He should defect (turn you in and get away with no jail time at all). To avoid the possibility of a longer jail term, you should also turn in the other person, giving him a medium sentence and assuring that you don’t get the longest possible term.

So the strategy for playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma exactly once is to always defect. You don’t get the best possible payoff, but you do prevent yourself from getting the worst possible outcome. The same considerations work for improv and business. If you never plan on performing or working with someone again, what they think of you and what they might do to you in the future is irrelevant. You could choose to defect by breaking a promise or paying an invoice late and move on with your life knowing that the other individual or business won’t be able to exact revenge. But what if you play game multiple times? That’s what’s called an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Next time: the Prisoner’s Dilemma and ongoing relationships.

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