Introduction to Social Dilemmas

This is the focus for Week 3 in Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

We have been introduced to social dilemmas principally through the excellent work of Peter Kollock, whose writing and speaking was clarity personified. See

Peter Kollock on YouTube … and

Kollock, P., 1998. Social Dilemmas: The Anatomy of Cooperation. Annual Review of Sociology, 24(1), pp.183–214.

For a more basic introduction to Social Dilemmas – this website is useful

What is a social dilemma?

In the abstract of his article Kollock defines social dilemmas as follows

The study of social dilemmas is the study of the tension between individual and collective rationality. In a social dilemma, individually reasonable behavior leads to a situation in which everyone is worse off..

A classic example of a social dilemma often seen in the UK is the temptation to continue to water  gardens or wash cars during a hose-pipe ban instigated during drought conditions.

A key two person social dilemma can be studied through the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. For our course mission this week we have been asked to play 3 online Prisoner’s Dilemmas Games and reflect on the outcomes.

Play all three of these versions of Prisoner’s dilemma and write a reflective blog post:  A simple Java-based game.  Prisoner’s dilemma game set in cyberspace – nice instruction and simulation  Simple interface for playing the game and a bit more complicated charts to run simulation by varying the number of rounds, customized strategy, etc.

What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma ?

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

See Richard Dawkins videos for a demonstration of how to play the game –  and  

Playing The Games

Game 3

I only spent a short time on this game – but I found the simulations interesting. Here are the results I got from two.

1. Always Cooperate – the results suggest that this is a good strategy, but it depends on what your opponent does.

Game 3 always cooperate

2. True Peacemaker  – This would appear to be a bad strategy.

Game 3 True peacemaker

Game 2 

This site has lots of fascinating information in addition to the game.

A brief time playing this game suggested that if your motive is to increase the pay-off for your partner as well as for yourself, then some competitive behaviour will increase the benefits for both you and your opponent. This is suggestive of ‘Coopetition’ – Coopetition occurs when companies interact with partial congruence of interests. They cooperate with each other to reach a higher value creation if compared to the value created without interaction, and struggle to achieve competitive advantage.

Game 1 –

I spent the most time playing this game and tried to test it in the following ways:

1. Play Tit-for-Tat right through the game, i.e. start by cooperating and thereafter follow your opponent’s moves. This is thought to be the ‘best’ strategy for assuring an equal or almost equal outcome, although you cannot beat your opponent (win) using this strategy.

Tit-for Tat after 1st coop

In the first 3 rounds my opponent cooperated after the opening cooperative move, and the Tit-for-Tat strategy resulted in an equal outcome. But in the final two rounds my opponent defected on following the opening cooperative move, resulting in a slightly negative outcome for me.

2. Play Tit-for-Tat, but defect on the first move

Tit for Tat defect first

On all rounds I either won or came out equal, confirming the finding that defection/cheating pays!

3. I then tried the strategy of always cooperating no matter what my opponent did – which turned out to be a very poor strategy

Game 1 -always cooperate

4. And finally I tried always defecting – right from the first move – no matter what my opponent did. If you want to win – this is the way to go. Even if your opponent also always defects from the first move you will draw even.

Game 1 - Always defect

All this could be seen as a rather depressing picture, so it’s worth remembering that metaphors are dangerous.

‘Metaphors are not to be trifled with’  Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984)

Peter Kollock urges us to remember that ‘An eye for an eye makes everyone blind’. He writes: Tit for tat is a very hard nosed strategy with no slack in for forgiveness or generosity.  It is a strategy that responds immediately and in kind, and admits no credit. Tit for Tat can end up in cycles of recrimination and get you into a lot of trouble.  He suggests four key ways of cultivating cooperation:

  1. Don’t be envious
  2. Encourage durable and frequent interactions
  3. Improve recognition and recall
  4. Be generous

But ultimately it comes down to whether individuals fundamentally believe that cooperation will lead to the best outcomes.  The Prisoner’s Dilemma game doesn’t appear to support this.