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Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Prisoner’s Dilemma


  • Giving his keynote address at the Goa Maritime Conclave, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh referred to the concept of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” to underscore the need for countries to collaborate with each other instead of working at cross purposes.
  • The concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, when applied in the domain of international relations, can explain and analyse various situations where countries face strategic decision-making challenges.

What is Prisoner’s Dilemma?

  • Prisoner’s Dilemma refers to one of the most popular “games” in Game Theory, which is itself a branch of science that helps understand how people/entities behave under different circumstances.
  • By simulating a game, Game Theory also shows how to achieve the best outcome.
  • For instance, it may appear straight-forward that a person or a country must always do what appears to provide them with the best pay-off.
  • However, real life is complex and filled with uncertainty.
  • Moreover, the final outcome depends on the actions of other people/countries as well. To be sure, the final outcome could change if the other party/parties act in conflict.
  • Suppose two people A and B are brought in for questioning about a crime.
  • However, the evidence with the police is circumstantial and the best that they can hope to achieve is to put both A and B in jail for a year each.
  • Unless, of course, they get more credible evidence. One way to do this is to get the prisoners to rat out each other.
  • So the police officer puts both A and B in separate rooms and provides both of them with a simple choice: If one prisoner says the other is involved in the crime, he can go scot-free while the other will be given a 15-year jail term.
  • Of course, if neither prisoner confesses, they both will only get one year’s jail time.
  • If both confess then in that case, their jail times will be 10 years each.
  • Simply put, the prisoner’s dilemma is whether to confess or stay silent.

What should the prisoners do, then?

  • On the face of it, staying silent appears like the right course of action.
  • If both prisoners stay silent, they get away with the best pay-off that is, just serving one year in prison.
  • But can either of them be sure that while they stay silent, the other will not rat them out.
  • The fact is that if either of the prisoners stays silent, they run the risk of facing the maximum prison time (15 years).
  • However, if both confess, they condemn each other to 10 years of jail time.
  • If one cannot be sure of the other prisoner’s behaviour, then and this is the paradox confessing is the way forward.
  • The best outcome, of course, lies in co-operation.
  • If both prisoners co-operate, they can achieve the best outcome and get away with just a year in prison.

Syllabus: Prelims

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