How To Evade The Prisoner’s Dilemma?

Find out the key lessons about trust and forgiveness taught by this famous decision-making game.

Ever heard of “The Bank Job”?

If you live in the country of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, you might have watched this TV show where participants compete for prize money through a series of games.

The interesting part is the final as the two remaining contestants face each other for a final game called “Cash or Trash”. Each of them has to secretly choose between a suitcase full of “Cash” or a suitcase full of “Trash” and give it to the other participant.

  • If both choose “Cash”, they split the jackpot evenly.
  • If one chooses “Cash”, but the other chooses “Trash”, the latter keeps the whole prize money for him or herself.
  • Finally, if both choose “Trash”, they both go home empty-handed.
Matrix of Prisoner’s Dilemma (“Cash” or “Trash” version)
Source: Lison Mage

Indeed, this is an adaptation of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, a cornerstone example of the decision-making model called game theory.

If the Prisoner’s Dilemma game is played in a vacuum, namely there is no opportunity for retribution or risk of social status loss, the mathematics are categorical, betrayal reigns supreme¹.

The best and thus most rational solution is to “Trash” the other.

And there are many examples of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in our day-to-day life. Let’s take this customer presentation we have to prepare with our colleague. It could be tempting to do nothing and rely solely on the work of our colleague.

  • If we both choose “Work”, the presentation is done with evenly shared effort.
  • If we choose “Watch my favorite Netflix series”, while our colleague works, she will take on the extra work and be quite unhappy about it. But the presentation will be done without even having to lift a finger.
  • If we both choose to binge on ice cream in front of the TV, nothing gets done and the presentation will probably not go smoothly.
Matrix of Prisoner’s Dilemma (“Work” or “Netflix” version)
Source: Lison Mage

Indeed, in the real world, most of the time we play nice together and adopt a “cooperative behavior”². The reason being there won’t be just one customer presentation to be done. If we decide to “skip” it, we might get away with it once or twice, but after that, it will probably backfire.

Mathematicians studied extensively the best strategies to be used when playing many games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to ensure the best outcome.

What did they find?

First, being always nice, being a “blind optimist” and always going for “Cash” no matter what is probably the worst strategy possible, as it will be ruthlessly exploited by some people³.

Remember the several dozen all-nighters spent at work and the meetings scheduled on your weekend, to ensure the project would be successful, only to be told for the third consecutive year that the company cannot afford to increase your salary?

So, as much as it is important to be “nice” at first, a key element is to be willing to retaliate. We must be able to say “no” and “enough is enough”.

We must stand and speak for ourselves.

But we should not be blinded with anger as it could create an echo effect, also called “negative reciprocity”, and trap us in a loop of noncooperative responses.

For instance, we haven’t received the email we ardently wait for. As our impatience grows, we think to ourselves: “I will make them wait for a long time after that”. Now, if our interlocutor reacts the same way, this could create an endless negative cycle.

So we also have to learn to be forgiving.

And we often have a misconception about forgiveness. We think it is about the other person, but it is not.

Forgiveness is a gift for ourselves.

Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, said that “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies”. He chose to break this hatred cycle and to forgive his jailers.

He did not forget, but he forgave, which “liberates the soul and removes fear”.

Ruminating old facts and grudges takes a heavy toll on us and makes us feel stuck. Holding feelings of bitterness and grief doesn’t make us powerful, it leaves us powerless.

When we forgive, we let go of our burden of negative emotions and we can change our focus. When we stop looking backward with resentment, we can start moving forward.

Forgiveness is truly a gift for ourselves.

So, if you ever find yourself in a series of Prisoner’s Dilemma, remember to start with optimism, stand for yourself if others don’t play nice, and forgive.

Ultimately, the Prisoner’s Dilemma offers us two choices: “Cooperate” or “Betray” (“Cash” or “Trash”). It is certainly a good mathematical “puzzle” since so many took interest in it, but as a rule of thumb, we should be wary of problems that do only offer two possible outcomes as Life is rarely that restrictive.

I can either stay in my job or find a new one”.

Well, we could also take a sabbatical year to travel the world or undergo this 6-month training to gain a new skill set and change our career.

And the list could probably go on.

The point being, don’t let the dichotomy of a problem get to you. When you feel that none of the solutions are good, take a step back and try to see if you can find a third choice (maybe a fourth and a fifth too!)

In the case of the customer presentation, we could bring more people in to reduce the efforts of each contributor. If we are short on additional resources, we still could discuss with our colleague and decide to take turns.

The best way out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to make sure there is no dilemma in the first place.

If you want to know more on how to improve your decision-making process without overthinking everything, join my free workshop here:


[1]- Algarni M., 2017, “Understanding The Game Theory Of The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, International Journal of Applied Information Systems

[2]- Fehr E. and Fischbacher U., 2003, “The Nature Of Human Altruism”, Nature

[3]- Axelrod R., 1984, “The Evolution Of Cooperation”, Basic Books

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Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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