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What is the Prisoner's Dilemma? - Albert Tucker & Game Theory

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  • 0:40 Game Theory
  • 1:12 Prisoner's Delimma
  • 2:20 Outcome
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Polly Peterson
Do you make decisions based on your own self- interest? In this lesson, we'll take a look at the famous 'prisoner's dilemma' game to see if individuals, when faced with a competitive or cooperative decision, will choose selfish or selfless outcomes.

Would you choose short-term benefits for selfish reasons, even if they had long-term negative impacts on the group? Or, would you act altruistically and put the best interests of the group before your own?

Such questions of social conscience and morality were examined by researchers at the RAND Corporation. In the 1950s, while Cold War tensions were high, RAND researchers Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher used game theory to simulate global nuclear strategies. Each scenario in their war games would predict a different outcome of nuclear war based on the choices that the superpowers made. They asked questions like, 'if the U.S. dropped the bomb first, would we win the war in the short term, but cause long-term destruction to humankind?'

Mathematician and RAND consultant Albert Tucker applied this same game theory to a hypothetical situation with prisoners. Tucker's version is known as the prisoner's dilemma. He presented the scenarios to a group of Stanford psychologists, sparking its widespread application in psychology, biology, sociology and other disciplines.

The prisoner's dilemma goes like this: two prisoners (let's call them Bonnie and Clyde) are suspected of committing a major crime together. The prosecutors only have evidence to convict each of them on a minor offense. Bonnie and Clyde are interrogated separately in hopes of getting a confession.

The prosecutors promise to give each prisoner a reduced sentence if they confess first to the major crime and implicate their partner.

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