The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Semiotic Analysis

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the way that it is framed. Take, for instance, this concise description from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. “You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I’ll see to it that you both get early parole. If you both remain silent, I’ll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning.”

First of all, what’s in a name? “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” tells us about a dilemma faced by a prisoner – note the placement of the apostrophe. In this example, though, there are two prisoners, and they both face the same dilemma. Why, then, do we not see this dilemma called “The Prisoners’ Dilemma?”

Well, the dilemma only comes about as a result of the separation of the two prisoners into individuals. If there were one player controlling both prisoners and trying to maximize her score, she’d have no dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, however, is faced by one individual, alone, isolated from contact with her fellow prisoner.

That leads to another question: why a prisoner? There are plenty of ways to propose the same paradigm – for example, two students who turned in identical examinations. Or an invading army offering a reward for whoever will open the town’s gates at midnight. The point is there are any number of anecdotes that match the payoff matrix of the PD, and perhaps infinitely many could be invented. Prisoners were chosen – why?

On some level, the prisoner’s dilemma applied to prisoners is well-understood. Plenty of people enjoy the legal drama as a story – plenty of people have been exposed, in our time, to Law and Order, Homicide, or CSI, and these modern shows have predecessors, and those predecessors use tropes set up in literature.

I would argue, however, that the choice of prisoners goes deeper than a simple familiarity. There is a match in situation between a prisoner and one caught in the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, if this same problem were explained using students caught cheating instead of criminals caught robbing a bank, the students would still feel trapped. They would still feel like prisoners. And the person who reads the dilemma sympathizes with the subjects of the dilemma and feels their sense of being trapped. The situation that we call the Prisoner’s Dilemma works because of panoptic power, and panoptic power makes its subjects into prisoners, much more than it makes them into students, or frightened villagers.

When I say that people sympathize with the subjects of the dilemma, I mean, the reaction intended by the framing of the dilemma is that the reader puts herself in the place of the prisoner. The reader must ask “What would I do if offered such a deal,” and not “What would I do if I were the prosecutor and I had two prisoners?”

And that brings up another quite interesting point. We are told explicitly what the preferences of the prisoners are: they want to maximize their freedom, even to the detriment of their partner in crime. We are never told the goal of the prosecutor, although the prosecutor’s actions seem to speak for themselves. The prosecutor’s goal is, simply, to get convictions – to maximize jail time for the two prisoners. In our legal system, prosecutors build their careers by putting people in jail. If the goal of the prosecutor were to find out the truth, the Prisoner’s Dilemma would not be an effective tool. Imagine that one prisoner committed a crime and the other prisoner just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who would be more likely to confess a crime, thus putting the other person in jail, and who would be more likely to maintain her innocence, thus going to jail?

If the panoptic model helps to maximize power, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma uses the panoptic model on behalf of authority, then it is a blind authority whose power is maximized. The authority does not care about the well-being of the society it has authority over; it is merely concerned with maintaining its own power. And indeed, this relationship is reflected by the names of the moves in the Prisoner’s Dilemma: defect and cooperate.

To defect is to cooperate with the authorities. To cooperate is to be defective from the point of view of the authority – a defective, criminal citizen, a defector, a saboteur of civil authority. The terms “defect” and “cooperate” refer to a presumed partnership between the two prisoners. I say presumed because nowhere in the description of the Dilemma is it stated or implied that the two prisoners have made any kind of agreement about how to handle such an eventuality as being placed into the Dilemma. The two prisoners are presumed to be partners only in the sense of (allegedly) participating in a criminal activity together; since nothing is stated about their guilt or innocence it may well be that neither of them has even met the other. The two are described as “accomplices,” but accomplices who prioritize each other’s well-being much lower than their own – in other words, hardly friends, or compatriots, or long-term partners in any sense.

However, the term “defect” implies something defected from, some country or alliance. Again, the term cooperate is ambiguous – the prisoners can cooperate with each other or with the authorities. We’ve already established that the authorities do not have the best interests of the prisoners in mind, and now we also establish that if the prisoners are to do any cooperating, it will be with each other, against the authorities. The authorities want to gain power by destroying the bonds of cooperation and causing someone to defect from society; the prisoners want to remain free by holding together as a society.

The choices could have been named differently. Confession could have been called cooperation – and certainly if we view the game from the perspective of the prosecutor, a confession would be a way for a prisoner to cooperate. However, again, the PD puts us in the place of the Prisoner, who is depicted as being in society with other prisoners but not with the prosecutor or the authorities.

Again, the PD does not have to be expressed in these terms that suggest that authority is opposed to, rather than part of, society. It doesn’t have to, but it is, and I consider this highly significant. The PD is not a dilemma about how we get justice – it is a dilemma about how we get freedom. And the freedom of the reduced sentences is not simply a freedom from jail, but a freedom from the power that would turn us against each other in pursuit of its own anti-social goals.


March 9, 2008 - Posted by | Game Theory, Power | , , ,

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