Elinor Ostrom on the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Which You Should Approach with a Hermeneutic of Suspicion)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

For those who came in late, here’s an explanation of The Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD):

Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

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 a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian 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. Here’s how it goes:

  • If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

It’s 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 won’t affect their reputation in future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other.

Sorry to use Wikipedia, but it seems to be the best of the lot on the web, including Princeton’s obituary of Tucker, which describes PD’s ubiquity:

Tucker’s simple paradox has since given rise to a vast literature in subjects as diverse as philosophy, biology, sociology, political science, and economics, as well as game theory itself.

(More examples here.)

One important application of PD is found in Garrett Hardin’s extremely influential “Tragedy of the Commons” (Science162, 1243-1248 (1968)):

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

(Hardin, though citing to game theory sources, does not use the term PD explicitly. However, the payoff matrix for cooperation vs. defection is the same, as is the outcome of the game.) QED, right? Not so fast.

* * *

It’s interesting to note that when social scientist got around to — quelle horreur — actually testing Prisoner’s Dilemma on real prisoners, PD (and by extension not only Tucker’s thesis, but Hardin’s “tragedy”) broke down:

For six decades, the classic cooperation test known as the prisoner’s dilemma has been a mainstay of graduate courses on game theory and behavioral economics, not to mention in Hollywood detective series.

Until recently, no one thought to test the game on actual prisoners.

A pair of German economists offered female prisoners a chance, and found they were more likely to act in cahoots than shaft the other prisoner, compared with female students in a control group, according to a study published in the August edition of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Ostrom, critiquing Hardin, explains why in her Nobel Lecture, which is dense but fast-moving and well worth reading and study:

The classic assumptions about rational individuals facing a dichotomy of organizational forms and of goods hide the potentially productive efforts of individuals and groups to organize and solve social dilemmas such as the overharvesting of common-pool resources and the underprovision of local public goods. The classic models have been used to view those who are involved in a Prisoner’s Dilemma [PD] game or other social dilemmas as always trapped in the situation without capabilities to change the structure themselves. This analytical step was a retrogressive step in the theories used to analyze the human condition. Whether or not the individuals who are in a situation have capacities to transform the external variables affecting their own situation varies dramatically from one situation to the next. It is an empirical condition that varies from situation to situation rather than a logical universality. Public investigators purposely keep prisoners separated so they cannot communicate. The users of a common-pool resource are not so limited.

When analysts perceive the human beings they model as being trapped inside perverse situations, they then assume that other human beings external to those involved – scholars and public officials – are able to analyze the situation, ascertain why counterproductive outcomes are reached, and posit what changes in the rules-in-use will enable participants to improve outcomes. Then, external officials are expected to impose an optimal set of rules on those individuals involved. it is assumed that the momentum for change must come from outside the situation rather than from the self-reflection and creativity of those within a situation to restructure their own patterns of interaction.

So, whenever you hear an analyst or expert, especially an economist, invoke the Prisoner’s Dilemma, you might ask yourself, this being the hermeneutic part:

1) Whether the key assumption — that game participants cannot communicate — is realistic* in context as you know it, and

2) Whether — and here we draw on the seminal work by Outis Philalithopoulos on “academic choice theory” — the analyst or expert is personally invested in the “optimal set of rules” they will seek to impose on you (and people like you).

Indeed, considered in this light, “rationality,” as our economists understand it, looks an awful lot like mere compliance to a dehumanizing denial of agency.

NOTE One cannot help but wonder whether academic politics was an effective forcing ground for PD and game theory generally because its communication channels are so clogged with bullshit they might as well not exist. Frank Herbert, The Tactful Saboteur:

Two practitioners of the art of mental healing, so the story goes, passed each other every morning on their way to their respective offices. They knew each other, but weren’t on intimate terms. One morning as they approached each other, one of them turned to the other and said, “Good morning.” The one greeted failed to respond, but continued toward his office. Presently, though he stopped, turned and stared at the retreating back of the man who’d spoken, musing to himself: “Now, what did he really mean by that?”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. nowhere

    What are they going to do for an encore? Get a box, a radiation source and a cat and take on quantum mechanics?

  2. Luciano Moffatt

    The prisoner dilemma is an undetermined problem, since we do not know the history of loyalties and betrayals of the criminals.
    The way that this problem cheat us is to take a small part of the life of someone apart from the whole of it. Being loyal or betrayal is something on the identity of a person. And that identity is what the rest of the community uses to predict his or her behavior. That is much more important than some years of jail.
    So, as many “paradoxes” the PD is just undetermined, we do not know its context.

    1. William C

      If I recall correctly there are suggestions that the PD results have been tested also in different societies and the findings were that it depended how individualistic or non-individualistic the society was?

      1. diptherio

        That’s definitely the case for the Ultimatum Game, and is almost surely the case for the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or any other psychological game/test as well. It’s no surprise to neurologists or psychologists that human behavior is shaped by nature AND nurture, i.e. that environmental and socio-cultural milieu have profound effects in shaping personality (and therefore behavior). This is why studies of identical-twins separated at birth are so important. Economists, on the other hand, have determined without any study at all that nurture is unimportant, that cultural differences can be safely ignored, that humans are driven by “human nature” and that that nature is uniform across the species. It is a conception so crude and unsophisticated that it would be laughable, if so many serious people didn’t buy into it.

        In the first place, economists often don’t even bother to confirm their conclusions experimentally. That a proposition is mathematically sound and accompanied by even the barest of logical explanations is enough for many economists to accept its validity. And then, when someone actually bothers to perform experiments, they choose the test subjects from a random sample of college undergraduates. All results and conclusions are drawn from this incredibly homogeneous sample of the population. Not only are cross-cultural studies rare, studies that venture outside the confines of the campus are practically non-existent.

        Whaddaya think…is a population of 18-21 year olds–mostly middle and upper class, mostly white, and all American–a good proxy for the entirety of our species? Does it seem reasonable to assume that results and conclusions drawn from studying this pool of people will be universally applicable in all cultures and for all age and ethnic groups? If you answered “yes, of course” to these questions, congratulations! You’re ready to become an economist.

        1. Banger

          Much depends on how you craft a study–some are more valid than others. The PD is, as someone else note, more of a conceptual model or a rough guide to the issues involved–it has little practical application. Much depends on the level of distrust and alienation of the subjects as well as general cultural assumptions of the “prisoners” being tested.

  3. diptherio

    From my experience living in agricultural villages in Nepal: all the villagers were VERY aware of the nature of the “jungle” as a commons, and they had specific rules, more or less democratically imposed, on the use of this commons. On the rare occasion that someone would violate the collective rules (by, say, cutting down a tree without permission from the forest committee), half the village will show up at the offending party’s door to demand recompense. On the whole, the jungle commons, which is controlled mainly by locals, is very well managed (and sustainably managed; people have been farming the same land and collecting wood and fodder from the jungle for thousands of years), while other common resources (those controlled by the national government) have seen massive degradation.

    1. washunate

      “…half the village will show up at the offending party’s door to demand recompense…”

      That’s the key point, I’d say. Ostracizing the psychopaths requires the community to actually ostracize them.

      Right now, much of leftist thought in the Western world actually embraces them, from justifying the oppression of the criminal justice system to the waste of the healthcare and higher ed systems to the brutality of the national security state.

    2. James Levy

      Yes, what strikes me about “the tragedy of the commons” is that it is such ahistorical trash taken seriously by people who should know better. No one who studies the Commons in English history sees them ruined and despoiled and exploited in the way these idiot economists assume it must have been. People fought like demons to retain traditional access to common lands, and kept them functioning as a vital adjunct to their household economies for centuries. A quick perusal of the literature demonstrates that conclusively.

        1. diptherio

          Even in the classical presentation of the problem, where privately owned livestock end up overgrazing a common pasture, ISTM that the problem could be solved just as well by an elimination of privately owned livestock, rather than by the privatization of common land.

          Even on its own ridiculous terms, neo-classical economics fails to make the grade.

      1. J Sterling

        Yes, they weren’t enclosed because the rich had volunteered to take degraded land and improve it, they were enclosed because the rich saw well-managed land and coveted it.

        (Also, as Michael Perelman has pointed out in _The Invention of Capitalism_, because the rich wanted more landless laborers to employ, or threaten with unemployment, and they couldn’t do that until they’d first made them landless)

  4. J Sterling

    Considered purely as a mathematical puzzle, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is interesting, and the moral role of the prison governor and the guards in offering this devilish “opportunity” to the prisoners is not important. Because there are no governor or guards, this is just a colloquial description of the math.

    Considered as a real world phenomenon, the moral role of the governor and guards is central. This isn’t just something that happened, it was a strategy on the part of the prison system to force betrayal for its own purposes. The question is, what is to be done about that?

    Interestingly, the “real examples” section in Wikipedia seems to omit the labor movement, strikes, scabs and blacklegs from the list. Here we have the governor and guards (the owners and managers of a corporation) offering to let a union member be a scab, or a non-union member be a blackleg, in return for a lower wage (the cooperating striker gets fired). If all workers cooperate, they all get a better wage; if they all betray each other, wages are driven to the floor. Again, this model leaves out options for action such as heavily sanctioning the scabs and blacklegs, and completely taking down the owner and manager class who are running the “game”.

  5. washunate

    Yeah, the value of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that it is a theoretical model that is interesting to ponder.

    It is not a detailed model of the way things actually work. When ‘experts’ claim that their theoretical simplifications can be applied directly to the ‘real world’, definitely protect your wallet.

    That applies whether it’s PD or JG or PPP or GDP.

    1. JTFaraday

      “Yeah, the value of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that it is a theoretical model that is interesting to ponder.”

      Really? I don’t find this kind of stuff interesting at all.

      1. washunate

        I’m unclear on your point? Why would you spend time on stuff you don’t find interesting?

        I don’t find Miley Cyrus interesting, but that doesn’t mean sex on MTV is what is wrong with our country. It just means I don’t spend time watching MTV.

        1. JTFaraday

          Well, it that was just an offhand quip on my part, because you’re right– I didn’t waste much of my time on it. Maybe I’m just curious why anyone would.

          What is the justification for anyone wasting their time on this?

          1. washunate

            There are many interesting facets. Perhaps to summarize three of them:

            1) PD shows the value of cooperation. People will go to great lengths to work together, even in the face of massive and direct opposition of force,
            2) PD allows for exploration of the authoritarian nature of the criminal justice system, especially the use of prosecutorial selection to undermine the Constitution’s right to a jury trial and general due process and equal treatment, and
            3) PD shows a ‘rightist’ example of overusing models that helps in critiques of overusing ‘leftist’ models (like JG).

            1. Ditto

              Seeing the necessity of cooperation and the problems with limited information is how I was taught the concept. It was taught has a critique of markets. To me the critique is the point.

              In fact its one of the arguments that I effectively use with Libertarians. So far, I’ve nit encountered one with a rebuttal.

              Theses types of devices always tells me more about the thinking of the person I’m taking to than any actual complete understanding of the world.

              I tells me whether their thinking is rigid.

              1. washunate

                Me too.

                The whole point of PD is that the best choice (the Pareto Optimal solution) is one that requires coordination.

                The best strategy for (most members of) a social species like humans is to work together. That’s the power behind the PD model.

                If policy makers attempt to circumvent those incentives – or worse, ignore them – then terrible consequences follow from the overt authoritarianism necessary to enforce lack of coordination. It’s a basic matter of Secrecy vs. Transparency, whether talking about mortgage fraud or prisoner abuse.

                1. Ditto

                  What’s really going on here is a dislike of PD has been used by the right but that says nothing about what is just a thought experiment showing limits

                  Rather than argue about the misuse people choose to argue strangely that the concept is wrong

                  Its ironic that an idea that validates the need for the left is seen by both the left and right in such a distorted way

            2. JTFaraday

              Well, obviously I’m not an economist or a behavioral psychologist or analytic philosopher or anything like that, and I really don’t get the role that this sort of arid, decontextualized thought experiment plays in those kinds of academic disciplines.

              But it seems to me that there is this push these days from people presenting themselves as “the left” to say that self interest is bad, as a counter to the centrality that they see it as having in the reigning economic paradigms. As a general corrective, this is perhaps not a bad tactic.

              On the other hand, under the category of currently “in the news,” we have this UAW vote in Tennessee. To hear some of the UAW rhetoric around this vote, it’s as if the Union believes the UAW itself is toast if the vote goes south (which it did, at least in this round). And yet, according to this article Diptherio linked to on the Links page, many of the VW employees believe the UAW today is so compromised that they really aren’ t sure what it is that it still has to offer them.


              So, really, we have two groups of relatively disempowered people–the VW workers and the UAW– each of which is looking to save its hide. There’s a real life “prisoner’s dilemma” for you.

              So, the question is, with “the collective” institutions of the liberal “left,” like the UAW or the federal government (okay, LOL, but they think so), in such a weakened and/or (stronger than ever but) corrupted state, how much of this push to question “self interest” is about our genuine collective best interests and how much is an effort on the part of the liberal “left” to specifically prop up “collective” institutions that are in the throes of serious crises of legitimacy?

              Because, honestly, while I don’t personally know what the best thing to do is in this UAW case, I am fully in favor of the VW employees putting liberal political correctness (and nostalgia) on the side and being as selfish as they want to be in attempting to discern what is in their own personal best interests as employees apart from the legacy institution of the UAW, and its fate.

              If the UAW has a role to play there then great, but I don’t think that the VW employees have to prop up the UAW merely as a sign of good faith and cooperation.

              1. hunkerdown

                how much of this push to question “self interest” is about our genuine collective best interests and how much is an effort on the part of the liberal “left” to specifically prop up “collective” institutions that are in the throes of serious crises of legitimacy?

                Bingo. Given the amount of care that goes into crafting institutional messaging, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the speech of any organization that has gained the tenure of institution is any less performative, cynical and goal-oriented than any other pick-up artist.

                It’s interesting to note that nearly identical rhetoric is used against calls to boycott governmental elections. It’s also interesting to note how equating withdrawing support from an institution with selfishness discredits authentic altruism in other departments of life.

              2. washunate

                “…to say that self interest is bad…As a general corrective, this is perhaps not a bad tactic.”

                Personally, I’d say that’s a big part of the problem. The corrective to inaccurate analysis is not a different kind of inaccuracy.

        2. mac

          Spending time on things that of themselves are uninteresting lets one try to grasp why folks spend time cooking up schemes that are mostly useless and just ways for some folks to try to prove how clever they are.

          1. hunkerdown

            I got into a discussion elsewhere in which some futurist sang their hosannas about some technological fix, I observed that hatching grand plots is useless when they don’t take account of other cultures who aren’t interested in what’s on offer, and said futurist asked me what my plan was to “save the world”, arrogantly assuming that “the[ir] world” is so self-evidently right and proper that anyone who casts eyes upon it should want to preserve it exactly as it is.

            Blind advocacy, sigh. It’s a corrosive habit, but one must seemingly fight against the entire machinery of society to unlearn it.

    2. RepubAnon

      Precisely – the Prisoner’s Dilemma is merely a thought experiment to show how maximizing one’s individual gain (i.e. selfishness) can harm the group as a whole. Case in point: water pollution regulations in West Virginia, where the conventional wisdom is that regulations intended to protect their drinking water will harm employment.

      Prisoner’s Dilemma isn’t meant as a definitive answer – for example, the typical case does not correct for factors such as the effect on one’s life expectancy for cooperating with the police (if both prisoners know that cooperating with the police means that they’ll be killed as soon as they leave prison, the analysis changes). Lots of other factors must be included in a real-world analysis

    3. Dan Kervick

      The key lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma it is that if economic agents actually behaved the way neoclassical economists model them as behaving – as self-interested rational maximizers – then there can be situations in which each agent has a dominant strategy, and when all of those agents choose their dominant strategy, the aggregate result will be sub-optimal: each agent will end up worse off than they would have been in an alternative out-come in which all of the agents pursued an individually non-maximizing strategy.

      This realization ran contrary to the intuitions of many neo-classical thinkers who had supposed that if everyone were a rational individual maximizer, we would all end up better off. The Prisoner’s Dilemma research was one of several key results in the “market failure” literature, that showed how rational maximizers in a world of other rational maximizers can all fail to achieve the outcome that is judged best – even within the radically individualistic paradigm of rational maximization itself.

      1. Dan Kervick

        Ostrum: “The classic models have been used to view those who are involved in a Prisoner’s Dilemma [PD] game or other social dilemmas as always trapped in the situation without capabilities to change the structure themselves.”

        In my experience with the prisoner’s dilemma literature, that has not been the assumption at all.

  6. Will Shetterly

    Prisoners are more ethical than students. Oddly, that doesn’t surprise me.

    A point about the tragedy of the commons: historically, the tragedy is that rich people will seize the commons.

  7. doncastro

    I disagree that Hardin’s thesis is invalidated. Further, does not documented human behavior conform to the “tragedy”, especially when the prevailing mentality is that “there is no such thing as society”?

  8. allcoppedout

    My experience has been like Diptherio’s. In a sense, those of us unphased by the threat of academic narratives ‘came in early’. I’d been a cop before I heard this rot. People we nicked were pre-informed on what to say to cops and even quite dumb ones (average IQ in police interrogations, I think excluding cops, is 82) could work out, when given the PD offer, that you had no evidence. The real pressures put on are way more evil than PD.

    Point this out and you’d be told this and TOC were simplified elements to understand mind-boggling game theory. ‘Yee Haw! We get to play Dr. Strangelove’s game’, I might exclaim. The blank look would tell me that next week we’d get a case study about a firm run by a crook and get to discuss the strategy pretending this didn’t matter as it wasn’t in the case.

    I passed with distinction because I could count, but what was I doing in postgraduate classes learning to count? I did notice most of my peers couldn’t work out quickly where the numbers in negotiation exercise got to.

    So let me do that patronising academic trick of saying ‘Well done, Lambert’. He might miss the communication tone, but will know next week when he finds himself with other remedials working on the individual, rational economic man as the basis for sophisticated economics.

    Not fair to our gallant link provider of course. What’s really being taught through such dross in university classrooms is never to leave them to find out the real case. The crude tactic of keeping suspected offenders apart is standard across capitalism. A group of Microsoft users who have all paid £500 in rent to the company may well say they are broadly happy with the products. They might change their mind if they met Linux users like me who have paid squat.

    I did find I could make the PD experiment work with the assistance of wet newspaper. Promising to stop hitting chummy with it if he blows out his accomplice works a treat. Strangely, this is regarded as torture and not water-boarding. Actually getting enough evidence before you give someone a tug works well too. Did the Germans ask what the actual inducements in police interrogation rooms are?

    1. diptherio

      How I wish this blog had been around when I was doing my undergrad; I could have really used the intellectual support for my intuitions/observations that were consistently avoided or denied by my professors. I hope that there are econ students out there right now who are using this site and others like it to hold their professors accountable. In case there are any reading this: speak up in class kids, don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade and don’t let the BS pass without comment. Someone’s gotta save Econ (it could actually be a useful discipline), and the old guard sure hasn’t shown the will.

      1. allcoppedout

        Given the presence of German research, I did want to speculate on why the hermans nuked it. We did get Adorno, Marcuse, Gadamer, Derrida and Habermas in postgrad research methods. I got to a bit when Gadamer says, ‘hermeneutics guarantees truth’ and had a religious reaction (nausea). One eventually tires of the suspecting suspicion stuff when one realises they are talking as though we were modern enough to have a modernity to critique. It was the quadri-hermeneutic when I gave up. The essential trouble in academe is students can spot the academic narrative in anything – that’s the stuff the teachers will mark well if you regurgitate it. What we fail on across the board is getting people out into more experience and sailing close to the wind with their own thinking. Personality psychology is as daft as neo-classical economics once you ask ‘so what is personality’?

  9. Banger

    The PD is a kind of symbol of the perversity of assumptions about “rationality’ narrowly defined in the West. The assumptions inherent in this idea that “rational” action equals selfish action goes counter to everything else we know about human beings and their ability to connect with each other. Over twenty years ago Loren Carpenter set up a collective “hive mind” (see Kevin Kelly’s book Hive MInd (here is the link to an online version of the chapter this is described) by asking participants to do a number of tasks starting with a game of pong–people collectively connected their actions to perform this and far more complex acts like landing a plane in a flight simulator. I suggests, as much of social science and now neuro-science has conclusively found that we are hard wired for connection and communication and only a the perpetual beat of stress, distrust, fear, and relentless propaganda dividing us all into “winners” and “losers” keeps this perversity alive. This perversity is what we call individualism and it became a useful tool in human development in the same way that adolscents go through a phase of necessary separation from the family. But we are staying too long in adolescence and must move on to social maturity.

  10. ambrit

    I’m not all that hip as to theoretical PD playing, but I’ve seen versions of it deployed on job sites. Diptherios’ example of the Nepalese village is excellent, if we were all living in reasonably homogeneous groups. The real “Tragedy of the Commons” that I see is that most of us in the “Developed” world do not see the “commons” part at all. Atomization isolates and disenfranchises us as individuals. What’s the tipping point at which a group of people becomes a Movement? There’s the interesting part. Put another way; when does a faction become a government?
    As to my opening observation. I worked on a mid rise hotel project connected with a gambling casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As the job was beginning, the General Foreman called us all together to introduce himself, and lay out the ground rules. during the exposition, he lets slip that, “We don’t want to hear anything about unions on this job, nothing, nada, end of story. Got me?” No one spoke up. (Myself included, to my shame.) That, in and of itself, is not unusual here Down South. What is interesting to me is that the very concept of solidarity is not in play, at least here Down South. What are the factors that enable and encourage Solidarity to grow and flourish? There’s fertile ground for you.

    1. Banger

      What nurtures solidarity? To put it simply, compassion and courage. These two principles will lead us to personal as well as collective health.

      As for your Mississippi situation, you had no choice–there courage would have been foolish since the culture has no room for worker-solidarity even among workers. Solidarity of a sort exists in the Southern church which is culturally sympathetic to oligarchy and neo-feudalism. As there is a clear spiritual authority and order, so there is a clear temporal authority and order. Question one or another and chaos results.

      1. ambrit

        Yes indeedy! One of the biggest crooks in this area, Hattiesburg Mississippi, is the head of the largest Baptist Church in town. He is well known to be the eminence gris behind the Mayor. The questionable votes that decided the judicially mandated re-polling for mayor came from an area notoriously controlled by elders from his church. Something to do with an open ballot box that disappeared for several hours after the polls closed.
        What’s the famous saying Frank Herbert used in Dune? Something like, “When Church and State share the reins, disaster follows.”
        Thank you for the absolution concerning my silence in the face of Evil. I do think now, years later, that I sold a little piece of my soul by not speaking up, or at least, refusing to participate, as in looking for another job. I would suggest that that moment was a perfect Existential Test. Then, I think back on how Sartre died, and scratch my head. The older I get, the more I realize, I know nothing.

        1. craazyman

          No Exit?

          when confronted with the dilemma of becoming a murderer or a martyr, the only rational choice is to disappear!

          what they would have done in the old Stark Trek, if Kirk and, say, McCoy were in separate cells, they would have had Kirk pull a secret communicator out of his boot sole and get a secret signal up to Scotty in the transporter room, then both Kirk and McCoy would have disappeared. That’s how the pros do it.

          1. ambrit

            Dear craazyman;
            You mean like how that “retired” CIA man ‘disappeared’ after being held in Central America on an Italian extradition request? Now there’s science fiction for you!

  11. avg john

    I see a form of pd in the litter all around me. Some people respect their neighbors and community and pocket trash until they reach home to properly dispose of it, while others toss it out the window of their car (I’m assuming), when they are certain no one is looking. Maybe you could get a fix on the number of pd violators by doing a litter search of the area around a fast food joint and counting the number of paper pop cups found vs the total take out pops served over a given time period.

  12. JGordon

    “So, whenever you hear an analyst or expert, especially an economist”

    Testing whether their ideas actually work in reality is not a priority for economists. Which makes sense since they are more akin to voodoo witchdoctors and astrologists than actual scientists.

    Since I realized that fact, it’s always seemed very strange to me that people give them credibility; though I suppose that just goes to show that social proof and arguments from authority are given far more wait than actual reality in the minds of most people; though luckily being INTJ that’s never been cognitive error I’ve made; whenever I hear bullshit I immediately see it is bullshit no matter who says it… which was one of the reason I jumped off the Obama bus when I started noticing that everything he said was a lie back in 2009.

  13. Brooklin Bridge

    As usual, I must be missing something glaringly obvious.

    Regardless of Diptherio’s (well stated) valid points about social influences, there is something to the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the addition of 1 to the commons, to that particular logic, because clearly the political and social institutions and systems we have developed are not working for the benefit of the whole or even of the planet. That is, the social aspect of the way we deal with shared resources has not smoothed out the individual’s (or small cabals) tendency to miscalculate harm vs. benefit of his/her/their own contributions. The fallacy of a significant gain for the individual vs. an apparent much smaller loss for the whole seems to be awfully evident in explaining part – at least – of humanities tendency to pollute a little more than they un-pollute each day in-spite of the aggregate consequences (for instance, put more gallons of gas in their car each and every week in spite of the existential threat of too much carbon in the atmosphere). Is this not the essence of the Easter Island fiasco? Taking just one more tree will help me and my tribe a lot more than it will hurt the island? (Only in that case it is not scale that presents a problem but rather technical understanding of forest ecology). Of course, that assumes that the removal of the forest WAS the reason society on Easter island collapsed. PD (for want of a better term) even seems to get at something related to why we persist with Capitalism way beyond the point that it serve a net positive for the whole of society.

    Perhaps the influence of “nurture” or social surroundings over time works well in situations of small scale, such as the prison or the commons or the forest surrounding a village but breaks down (and is easily to manipulate to the advantage of small groups) when the scale is too big or the phenomenon too complex for the participants to easily comprehend.

    It goes without saying, that it’s “more complicated than that”, but that still seems to raise a very valid point about humans.

    1. allcoppedout

      Easter Island is a bad choice BB. It seems the real reason for the demise there is the much more usual story of European avarice. The Easter Islanders used some very clever eco-gardening including lithic mulching (breaking and spreading stones to prevent erosion). Along came white slavers taking them off to South American mines, then sheep farmers who destroyed the land through mono-culture it had never been suitable for.

      Your argument still stands up a bit. Like large-scale change in the interests of a fast buck and to hell with the locals?

    2. Ditto

      You understand correctly.

      I’ve seen other left leaning arguments try to rebut the PD model but much of it seems to miss the point: that markets do not always work

      The way we studied the concept was “even if humans were perfectly rational …”

      The fact they aren’t only further proves the limits of markets rather than rebuts the PD model

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I don’t see this as an either/or phenomenon. Self interest doesn’t negate altruism or compassion, it sort of wrestles with them. Much the same with social behavior; self interest and social interests are not mutually exclusive, they tend to co-exist and interact with varying degrees of tension. Perhaps the PD variation puts too much emphasis on the moral aspects of “selfishness”. The commons-plus-one-animal scenario suggests an innate “blind spot” more than some morally dinged-up jail bird in all of us.

        To me it seems that some of our human traits are very limited, if not downright pathological in their consequences without any requirement for “ill intent”, and the phenomenon is multiplied by complexity so large scale population expansion and resource scarcity (impacting the whole “chain of life”), for instance, when confronted by this blind spot in human nature is orders of magnitude more destructive – AND harder to spot/avoid – than it would be otherwise.

        But in terms of politics, I see this as naturally “left” leaning if there is any lean at all. This particular fallacy of self interest, where we have built in difficulties evaluating short term and/or personal gain vs. long term and/or societal loss strikes me as a compelling reason for for more social regulation – preferably by disinterested party such as government – not less.

  14. Gareth

    PD assumes that members of an crime gang don’t have access to attorneys, don’t have disdain for the authorities, can’t bribe a guard, won’t receive financial compensation from a crime boss for keeping their mouths shut and aren’t in fear of said Boss. It’s not even a good thought experiment.

    1. Mad John

      Even beyond the concept of a crime boss compensating you for your silence, friendship and loyalty must be considered.

      In my youth I was involved in a very large drug bust. After being held in an apartment along with my wife and infant daughter in the winter with the heat turned off (thank you policeman) we were finally taken to headquarters and of course separated. That’s when the questioning began. Everything offered to me was so reasonable if I would only talk. Really realizing what bastards these people truly are (little difference than the criminals they are after) I would be a fool to play their game and acknowledged nothing that they said. My freedom was not enough of a reward to give up my friend for help those bastards make their job easier.

      A total distrust of the authority and the system played into my reasoning no matter how irrational it might have been.

      And anyway there is a drug war going on. As a soldier I was taught if I were captured to only answer with my name rank and serial number. I had been captured by the opposing force and of course remembered my military training.

      Needless to say within 24 hours we all walked free.

    2. Ditto

      Your critique makes little sense

      The model tests a concept- whether rational decisions are enough?

      PD says no if you take ideology out of it

      It is not meant to be complete understanding of the world

      1. James Levy

        You are correct on a narrow point, but wrong in that economists take this stuff not only seriously, but as de facto human nature always and everywhere. This worldview is the basis of neoclassical economics, and therefore PD’s incredibly technically limited interest and abstract validity has crushing real-world consequences that destroy any value it might have as some kind of narrow thought experiment.

        And ideology can NEVER be taken out of human thoughts or interactions.

        1. Ditto

          If you want to argument about economist and ideology, do that rather argue about PD.

          What you are doing here is “solving” the problem by repeating it

  15. allcoppedout

    Never saw much difference between authoritarian Marxist or neo-classical professors myself Banger. My science classes were remarkably less dogmatic than the later social and economic teaching I had to endure. Those who stress PD as a model for the maths and right, but miss the point. Exam questions and assignments will be on that and students have already learned what to expect, thus you get a double exclusion of what might really matter.

    The question ‘is it fair that tube train drivers get £48K when teachers, cops and nurses are only getting around £25K’ puts lots that really matters off the table. Our newsrooms operate in such a manner all the time. How are we learning to accept these excluding questions?

    Sometimes this is OK as in the primitive models of valency chemistry taught at school as a lead into quantum chemistry. In this the school model works up to a point and involve some approximation of what can be observed.

  16. johnL

    Ostrom’s work is excellent. I’m finding it useful in enhancing governance of our community water system.
    The real tragedy of the commons happens when it’s taken over by the market or the state. Reclaiming the commons may be our best hope in combating environmental degradation, climate change, and inequality.
    Would like to see PD, the tragedy of the commons in the Garrett Hardin sense, and the invisible hand recognized as the plutocrat-supporting BS they are and consigned to the dustbin of history.

  17. Dan Kervick

    The prisoner’s dilemma is not usually discussed as a model of every kind of social situation, but as an analysis of the kinds of results we can expect in particular kinds of social situations if all of the participants in the situation act of the basis of self interest. One can think of it as an argument showing “the self-destruction of self-interest”.

    When extending the analysis to long term situations in which the prisoner’s dilemma setup is iterated, then even if you allow that many people have a psychological predisposition toward spontaneous cooperation when initially faced with prisoner’s dilemma situations, you can get results showing that that cooperative equilibrium can be destroyed by the presence of a few non-cooperating individualists in the mix, leading more and more people to opt for self-interest over cooperation.

    The usually follow-on to all this, when prisoner’s dilemma models are invoked in application to particular kinds of situation, is to argue for the need for government and other forms of cooperative organization to save groups from the self-destructive results of their own self-interestedness.

    1. James Levy

      What I ran into in these discussion in PoliSci in Grad School was the inability of my Profs to differentiate what people do from what is “rational.” Basically, they argued that anything that the actor perceives as ration is rational; that people are rational utility maximizers by definition but that there was no objective way to identify either utility or maximization–all we could do was observe choice, then in an ex post facto way declare it, for the chooser, as utility maximization. I found this stupid and told them so. They handed me a terminal MA and I went off and got a Ph.D. in History, where at least we knew what we were talking about when we said “aircraft carrier” and “light cruiser.”

      1. Ditto

        Your program didn’t sound very good. It sounds like the pop culture version of rational actor and may be how the term is currently taught now- which surrenders to being tautological. I was taught rational means working toward defined outcome x. Without defined outcome x, you can’t know if an act is rational. I know it has become to mean whatever the market does therefore x, but that’s the political reconstruction. At the end if the day the whatever the market does definition had won out but rational if its understood as limited can be defined.

  18. Ditto

    As others have said the model points out the limits of self interest

    Specifically through the problems of limited information and the problems with not cooperating

    I don’t understand the rebuttals

  19. bob

    Can’t communcicate, and that it’s a one off “game”, never played before, never again.

    As soon as there is more than one run of the game, and given that the “competitors” do communicate, it leads to a fixed “game”. Iterated prisoners dilema is the name that the game theorists call it. Although they also assume that the participants can’t communicate.

    And application of this “theory” in the USA should be called out as crassly as possible as the affront to the first amendment that it is.

  20. American Slave

    All I have to say is that ive never read the tragedy of the commons and now I know I never want to read that garbage.

    2nd. There is quite a difference in capitalist vs China in the past or the Soviet Union on keeping suspected criminals separated as they believed if they had enough evidence to charge them that it was better to keep them together as they might decide to make a plea bargain together rather than going against and selling out there comrade which is not likely to happen. And who wants to turn in their friend and give them a 30yr sentence while ruining their life especially over something like drugs, not even the SU had such harsh and useless sentences believe it or not.

    Capitalism is damn good at not fixing problems from world hunger to crime its amazing how little it manege’s to accomplish unless it comes to replacing people with machines which they more than excel at in that field.

  21. Dan Kervick

    One plausible response to the tragedy of the commons is to hold that some key national resources should not be treated as “common” property from which each person can draw in a laissez faire manner in accordance with rules of their own personal choosing; but nor should they be managed through the mechanisms of private ownership and private enterprise and profit. Instead, they need to be owned by the public as a whole, and their exploitation and distribution need to be managed in a rational and democratically determined way.

  22. Dagnarus

    I’ve often wondered why the left has such a problem with the prisoner’s dilemma. After all at it’s core it outlines a situation in which a population of homo econimici are worse off both collectively and as individuals than a population of healthy humans who rather than only valuing rational self interest, also have other values such as loyalty. For example in the prisoner example, those prisoner’s who make their decision while valuing loyalty to one another will parodically end up doing less time than those who only value do the least amount of jail time. That this thought experiment should be somehow offensive to the left suggests that the left doesn’t really understand it and is just reflexively attacking it because of the right using it.

  23. vlade

    likly someone has already written it, but don’t have time to read all the comments..
    PD is an idealised description. Anyone who treats it differently either fails to understand it, or has an agenda (or both). There are close-enough situations in RL that it can describe some of the stuff that goes on. Personally, I’d prefer game of chicken as being the more widespread than PD, as it’s more often found in the wild (in close to idealised situation).
    One of the main part of Game Theory is – if you can’t win within the rules, change the rules. Incidentally, that’s something that activists of any shape or form should understand. If you let yourself to be dictated the rules, chances are you’ll lose.

      1. vlade

        And I agree with it. The problem is that the people who want to kick GT just come in and say “look, it’s dumb because it’s not like what the real world is!”. Well, GTs know a pure PD is nothing like RL. I’m not saying there aren’t any dumbs who think that now they learned about PD they can use it to solve any and all problems of the world (and, unfortunately, some of them can be quite influential), but that them being dumb, and they would do it with anything. It’s like hacks who put “qantum” in the name and then go on to sell homeopathy to whoever will buy it, because it sounds smart. And I’m not saying this post is doing it – but I’ve seen posts at NC where the author had a limited understanding of GT and drew conclusions from that that suited.

        One of our current problems isn’t that we (as a species) don’t do science, it’s more that we do bad science or pretend that something where the scientific toolkit doesn’t work very well (like having repeatable experiments in macroeconomy) can provide solutions. Unfortunately, a lot of that goes on. A very good example is Malcolm Gladwell (in Outliers), who can write well, but lots of what he writes is a very bad science. Say the 1981 Korean crash which he attributes to Korean language/culture, with one suggestion being that pilots should talk English instead. Well, if he bothered to actually look at the trancscripts, he would have know they did talk English and it was fat help to them.

        The problem then is that guys like that give also bad name to some good science.. (as in, if he doesn’t know/understand what an eigenvalue is, and can’t spell it, it doesn’t mean eignvalues aren’t useful)

  24. Newtownian

    Here is an alternative solution to/view of the prisoner’s dilemma. In the decision though the prisoners cant communicate they both know the DA is out for self interest, power, self satisfaction and a big pay at their expense i.e. he is an asshole. Being emotional (principled) they say stuff this. If I say nothing there is a good chance the other guy will say nothing too and I will have the satisfaction of seeing this asshole screwed by his boss (probably also an asshole and so on ad infinitum in a reverse food chain effect) because he cant lock me up or has to do it on a trumped up charge. Now that’s worth it.

    So they have this other choice. Don’t say anything on principle because its an asshole who is putting the proposition forward and you cant trust him either anyway.

    Returning to Lambeth – I guess his point is consistent with this conceptualization – the person posing the PD in his example is a self serving neoclassical economist.

    Another implication of this analysis is that in fact the choice is a nonsense in that there are always more than 2 people involved in the PD. The two prisoners and their gaoler – or a whole community or a pair of communicators in the tragedy of the commons situation will probably sort things out especially when they see the damage they are doing.

    Any comments?

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