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The Prisoner's Dilemma: How would you act in this situation?

The Prisoner's Dilemma: How would you act in this situation?

May 6, 2021

In the face of making a decision that, apart from having repercussions for our own well-being, can affect others, we may find ourselves facing a social dilemma in which the benefits of the decision and our own and others' costs will come into play.

Although at first it may seem that our own interest will always prevail, this is not the case, because in that case we would find ourselves in a state of social chaos .

The prisoner's dilemma

The so-called "prisoner's dilemma" has been widely used in psychology studies where a conflict of interests between two people is shown. The participants were presented with a fictitious situation in which they should imagine that they are a thief who has been arrested, along with their partner, by the police. Both are interrogated by a separate lawyer, who proposes the following dilemma:


  • If both remain silent, that is, they cooperate, they will only have to pay a small fine.
  • If the two thieves give themselves away, that is, they betray each other, they will both go to jail for two years.
  • If one betrays and the other remains silent, the informer will be released but the betrayed will go to jail for 5 years.

Obviously, if we disclose our partner, we will be free and would be the best option for our own welfare. If both of us betrayed each other, we would end up in jail . So the best option would be to cooperate, where we would both get the same benefit and the same cost, but that is the dilemma: can we trust that our partner does not give us away? So, how do we behave?


Possible reactions to this dilemma

Well, several experimental laboratory and field studies have shown that we have four options:

  • Be individualists , that is, we seek to maximize our personal benefit, without taking into account how this can influence others (for better or for worse).
  • Opting for altruism , the opposite pole to the previous, where only the benefit of others will matter to us.
  • Show us competitive trying to be better than others despite the personal costs of the process.
  • Cooperate , so we would look for our decision to be equally beneficial for ourselves and for others.

Competitiveness and cooperation, the most used options

In other dilemmas games there is more than one opportunity to choose, in these cases the subjects usually start cooperating with each other and, in the next option, they will do the same thing that their partner has done. That is to say, they are faithful to the saying "today for you, tomorrow for me". As well, the conclusions of the studies reveal that the most commonly used options are competitiveness and cooperation , existing differences between genres (being them more cooperative than they) and cultural (to live in an individualistic or collective society).


However, we must take into account other important factors, such as the context in which the dilemma occurs, being very important the type of relationship that unites us with the other people involved. It is not the same that these are complete strangers or that they keep with us some bond of affection.

Recommendations to face the social dilemma

In conclusion, I propose a series of recommendations to face a social dilemma before which we do not know how to act:

  • Let's be empathetic and focus not only on our benefit but also on that of others.
  • Cooperation improves the reputation within our group and, in addition, it can help to forge ties of affection. Let's think that having good social relationships has an impact on our sense of personal well-being.
  • Communicate . Sometimes, it is advisable to try to reach an agreement with the other people involved. Evolution has "given us" the faculty of language, let's use it.
  • Let's make a personal feedback , thinking about the pros and cons of our actions, we can write them if necessary and mentally imagine the consequences for others and for ourselves.

The Prisoner's Dilemma (May 2021).


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