Everywhere we look we can find conflict in the world. Nuclear threats, civil wars and international trade conflicts come to mind on a geopolitical scale, but we also see it in our day-to-day lives. It can apply to your stand-off with your roommate over who is going to be the first to scrub the bathroom or your relationship with your coworkers, spouse or another member of your family.
In all of these cases, objectively, it seems that both sides would be much better off if they could just find a way to cooperate. And, in fact, they would. However, each party is averse to being the one to cave first, at risk of being ‘the sucker’, even if it means a worse overall outcome for everyone. In this way, we end up not cooperating even when it is in our mutual benefit to do so.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
“The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory. I recently listened to a great episode of the NPR podcast Planet Money, in which they featured Robert Axelrod, a career mediator and political scientist who eventually became a Professor at the University of Michigan during the height of the Cold War. For this reason, he took a particular interest in this experiment that has roots in the 1950s.