Howdy folks! We’re back for a quick, thought-provoking post on the “Prisoners’ Dilemma” – a philosophical thought exercise that is intriguing, confounding and very engaging if you get into it. It helps I suppose that here it’s told through the lens of the iconic The Dark Knight movie starring Heath Ledger in his now legendary turn as The Joker.
I came across it and two other favourite such experiments (the “Ship of Theseus” and “Plato’s Cave”) today in this article which you might be interested to check out but this one really stuck out because of the way it was written! Read on, enjoy and if you like it, be sure to go read the original article for more similar intriguing concepts:
So you’re on the ferry home from work, minding your own business, when a crazy clown comes over the ferry intercom and explains that you and a boat full of prisoners (or if you’re a prisoner, a boat full of squares) have access to a detonator that controls the explosives on the other boat. The first boat to blow up the other one’s detonator gets to live. If neither boat uses it, everyone dies in an hour. What do you do?
“We can’t know that the other ferry isn’t filled with neo-Nazi child molesters. Really, it’s irresponsible to not blow them up.”
Well, the first thing you do is probably curse your luck for having been born in Gotham. After all, people in the real world don’t have to deal with convoluted screw-or-get-screwed mind games, right? Actually, the Joker’s scheme in The Dark Knight is a textbook example of “the prisoner’s dilemma,” a thought experiment that academics use to explain most of modern history, or at least the parts that matter.
The prize behind door numbers 1 through 3 may not always be a crazy clown with a detonator, but the risk and reward for cooperation or assuming the worst about the other people is the same. Think about the problem of pollution. Let’s say you’re the king of America, and you and the kings of all the other countries agree that you need to stop polluting the planet. So you all go to a conference and agree to stop using fossil fuels, even though it’s going to hurt your economies in the short term. You all sign an agreement, you go home and suffer through gasoline withdrawals together, and everyone gets to keep living on this planet for another thousand years. Best possible outcome, right?
Nope! The best possible outcome is that all the other countries stick to their promise to stop using fossil fuels except for you. If you keep using gasoline to power your coffee maker and all those other countries do the hard work of developing cars with stupid little windmills all over them, everyone gets to keep living here, and your country has a huge economic advantage over the rest of them.
So, assuming that everyone else holds up their end of the bargain, the best possible outcome for your country is to screw them all over.
The worst possible outcome overall is that you do the right thing and nobody else does. You stick to the agreement and take the economic hit of weaning your country off of fossil fuels, but all the other countries are secretly making a bunch of jerk-off hand motions to each other during your conference calls. You get poorer and the Earth keeps dying. That’s an F- for you.
You can’t risk that, and neither can they, which is why nobody is going to stick to the agreement, nobody is going to take the economic hit, and your grandkids are going to have to deal with this shit.
That’s the prisoner’s dilemma: a situation where you have to decide whether or not to screw over a partner you can’t trust. The dilemma is that everyone is always better off screwing the other guy. If they act for the collective good, your best option is to act in your own self-interest (economic win + environmental win = A+), since if you both act for the collective good, everyone wins but nobody has the advantage (economic wash + environmental win = A). But if you assume that they won’t cooperate, you’re better off not cooperating (economic wash + environmental loss – 1 = F), since if you cooperate and nobody else does, you lose on both fronts (economic loss + environmental loss = F-).
The Joker’s plot might seem convoluted, but economists think that this model is responsible for the Cold War arms race, the psychology of addiction (in which you’re in a prisoner’s dilemma with yourself in the future) and basically every war that’s ever been fought (war is hell, but losing a war means that the future is hell, too). And The Dark Knight isn’t the only movie that’s obsessed with this idea. There’s a much more common and simpler dramatization of the prisoner’s dilemma that comes up constantly in movies.
There’s a reason that 90 percent of the conversations in action movies take place between people who have guns trained on one another. While that’s a fairly counterproductive way to have a conversation in the real world, it’s the perfect way to dramatize the prisoner’s dilemma. From an outsider’s perspective, the best possible outcome is that nobody pulls the trigger and everyone goes on living. But put yourself in the shoes of the guy who has a gun trained on him, and you realize that the best possible option is whatever gets that guy to stop pointing a gun at your head the fastest. Which is why the most likely outcome is the third option: both guys pull the trigger as soon as they have a second to think through the behavior modeling.
Of course, at the end of The Dark Knight and Mexican standoffs not directed by Quentin Tarantino, cooler heads prevail, and nobody pulls the trigger or presses the button. The Mexican standoff is a chance for us to set up and defuse the trap that we all find ourselves living inside of every day. Hell, even Quentin Tarantino learned his lesson. His first movie ends with a room full of mobsters doing exactly what the prisoner’s dilemma tells us we all would, and his second, much more successful movie ends with Jules Winnfield philosophizing his way out of a Mexican standoff. The truth is too painful.
(original article at Cracked)