Sometimes relentless optimism is frustrating, especially when surrounded by a bitterly pragmatic world in which change only comes glacially, if at all. And perhaps it’s even more exasperating to understand why political, social and economic problems aren’t resolved the way we’d like them to. In fact, even though individuals act in their own self-interest, straightforward interactions between individuals often result in less-than-optimal outcomes.
In the social simulation of game theory, philosophers often frame the discussions of cooperation and coordination as a form of the classic prisoner’s dilemma. In this example, two prisoners are caught for a crime. If both stay silent, they can both be declared innocent. If one defects, that prisoner is safe, while the other is imprisoned. And if they both defect, they both face jail time.
While the most obvious solution is for neither prisoner to defect, as both will escape prison, game theory explains that the rational choice is for an individual prisoner to defect, since it is in the prisoner’s best self-interest—and thus if both defect, they will both face jail time. Here, while performing the option that maximized the individual self-interest, both prisoners actually found themselves in an outcome that was worse for both of them.
Even though it describes a specific circumstance, the prisoner’s dilemma describes a much larger range of situations. A common political example is an arms race, in which stopping nuclear stockpiling benefits both countries, but they continue to stockpile out of fear of the other country’s nuclear supply. It’s a cycle of noncooperation that can only be broken with a repetition of interactions that builds trust — a near-impossible concept to truly build considering the diverse interests of different actors in the political and economic arena.
From a philosophical standpoint, it is, of course, an oversimplification to assume that every single person acts only in his or her self-interest. I’d like to think that people do the right thing instead of the most convenient one — but perhaps game theory proves that not only is the moral solution unrealistic, but that it’s also nearly impossible.
It’s a sobering thought.
Sonali Seth is a freshman majoring in political science. Her column, “Sonacrates,” runs Tuesdays.