3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on Making Impossible Decisions
Prisoner's Dilemma, Buridan's Ass & Tit-for-Tat
I. Prisoner's Dilemma
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a thought experiment about cooperation and betrayal. It puts two people in a predicament with only bad options.
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don't have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to two years in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain.
—William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma
There are four possible outcomes for our two prisoners. Let’s call them Danny and Rusty.
Danny and Rusty betray each other. Both serve 5 years in prison.
Danny betrays Rusty but Rusty keeps his mouth shut. Danny goes free and Rusty serves 10 years.
Danny stays loyal but Rusty informs on Danny. Now Danny serves 10 years and Rusty walks.
Both Danny and Rusty remain silent and end up doing 2 years in prison.
You don’t have to frequent prisons to encounter this type of dilemma. Doping in sports can have a similar dynamic. One athlete only really has an advantage if the other athletes stay clean.
II. Buridan's Ass
Buridan’s Ass is a satirical spin on a philosophical paradox about free will. It’s attributed to Jean Buridan, a 14th-century French philosopher who is quoted saying:
Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.
The idea was later simplified into the picture of an ass (donkey) that’s equally hungry and thirsty. It’s put halfway between a bucket of water and a stack of hay. What’s the ass going to do? Well, according to Buridan, it will die as it is unable to choose between food and water.
III. Tit for Tat
Tit for Tat is the winning strategy for playing repeated games comparable to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. At least according to game theory and the work of mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport.
The strategy works like this: Start by cooperating with your counterpart. If your collaborative behaviour is not reciprocated, mirror your counterpart’s actions in subsequent interactions. Meaning, if they cooperate, cooperate. If they defect, defect.
Note that this only works if the game consists of several rounds. If there’s only one (as is the case in the Prisoner’s Dilemma) it’s suggested to default to non-cooperation. 🐘
If you want more of this ⬆️, click here ⬇️.
Have a great week,
P.S.: I wrote a short essay about the Curse of Knowledge. Check it out if you haven’t already.