The Prisoner’s Dilemma in Espionage and in Professional Sports

LocksHey! Let’s review! Anyone who has taken an Economics class should be familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game Theory. Yes? Maybe? Hmm…

Well that was how I was feeling this afternoon. In the hmm… mode. My brother was studying for an exam while we were road tripping home and mentioned Prisoner’s Dilemma. Being the older sister, I stepped right up to the bat and said, “Well there are two guys being interrogated by the police. The dilemma is about jail time for the two men and the optimal decision for one, based off knowledge of the other man’s optimal decision.”  A more detailed explanation lies here. Wikipedia is the best, after all….

But the more I thought about this situation, the more it seemed too simple. I want to explore how this really plays out. Economics is full of rules and exceptions so I found a few examples from the real world.

Specimen one, a blog I have been following for a short time tells of using the Prisoner’s Dilemma on Al Qaeda prisoners. The author is Chris Simmons, a counterintelligence officer for the US who is a skilled interrogator, master spy-catcher, and terrorist hunter. His article, “What Al-Qaeda Taught Me About the Frailty of Loyalty,” illustrates how the Dilemma plays out in real time. It is a terrific read, but in summation, essentially he details how he used the humanity and self-interest of the prisoners to disintegrate any political or religious views them may have held. He concludes: “On every occasion, primal self-interest trumped loyalty and collective needs, not it days or weeks, but in just a few short hours.”

Another great example of Game Theory is collegiate and professional athletics. In many cases, people cheated because they thought their rivals and peers were cheating.  Thus, they felt compelled to cheat else be left in the fray at a competitive disadvantage. In the past 12 months alone, USC, Ohio State, and Tennessee made recent headlines for NCAA infractions violations. Prior infractions include the steroids scandal in Major League Baseball, countless offenses in track and field, and the scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong.

The bottom line is that when the incentives to cheat are so great, it’s hard to expect aggressive personalities to play by the rules in recruiting or in monitoring and reporting infractions.Beach OBX

So how do we break the Prisoner’s Dilemma? The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology sociologists Dirk Helbing and Wenjian Yu recently completed a study on cooperation. Helbing specializes in complex simulations of crowd behavior. If cooperative behavior potentially provides the highest rewards, but selfishness is the safest and most sensible course of action, how can cooperation emerge?

Helbing’s answer is  mobility and imitation. When individuals have the freedom to choose their associates and smart enough to imitate their success, cooperation emerges, then flourishes — and it doesn’t take much to start the process.

So although the Prisoner’s Dilemma exists, you are now aware of it’s implications. The action most aligned with self-interest is dependent upon your knowledge of the other contender’s decision. Choose what is the best option for both yourself and your opponent – and cooperate to make the world a better place. In the case of sports, no doping and a fair competition; in an interrogation, communicate with your buddy and conclude on the best course of action. Then again, if you’re being interrogated by the US government, good luck!

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