Prisoners’ Dilemma Essay

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Prisoners’ Dilemma is an illustrative game that was developed  to help demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis process that takes place when determining the desirability of a situational outcome. The term game may trigger thoughts of standard games like poker or baseball, but in this context  it is used to describe the interaction between two or more players (e.g., people, corporations, societies) where that interaction is based on strategizing and decision making (game theory). In an effort to explain the basic underlying principles of the concept, Merrill M. Flood and Melvin Dresher summarized it as a model of cooperation and conflict. Albert W. Tucker further simplified the concept through the use of a relatable example.

A description of that example is as follows: Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and held separately for interrogation without being able to communicate with each other. The interrogators admit there is not enough evidence to secure a conviction on the original charge and plan to charge both prisoners with a lesser charge that carries a guaranteed one-year prison term. After receiving the previous information, each prisoner is given the following two choices: (1) stay quiet and accept the one-year term, or (2) confess to the crime.

If the prisoner confesses that the crime took place and testifies against  his partner, he will receive no prison time while his partner gets a three-year prison sentence. However, there is a risk that his partner, who is simultaneously being offered the same deal, will also confess that the crime took place, and agree to testify in the hope of no prison time; but if that were to occur, the interrogators would have secured two confessions and can now charge both prisoners and secure a three-year prison term for each.

Hence the Prisoners’ Dilemma: Without the ability to communicate with each other, the prisoners have to strategize on what each believes his partner will choose and how every choice will affect his freedom. To address this, it is important to understand the intended use of the original theory.

Game theory has traditionally been a difficult economic phenomenon to explain, hence the adaptation of Prisoners’ Dilemma. Game theory was developed in a laboratory with a presumption that,  without the ability to communicate, two or more intelligent persons in a potential mutually beneficial interaction would make use of valid reasoning skills in order to predict favorable outcomes. In the present day, it has found utility in political science, psychology, and other fields. Game theory is described as a struggle of conflict (defecting) and cooperation between rational decision makers who have insight on how the outcome of their choices will not only influence the current situation but also future outcomes. A concern that the Prisoners’ Dilemma brings to the forefront is the appropriateness of use outside of economics.

The concept  of Prisoners’ Dilemma  has  a parallel to the well-known and frequently used Supreme Court sanction of plea bargaining. As an alternative to trial by jury, plea bargaining is the negotiation of an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant whereby the defendant is permitted to plead guilty to a charge that may carry a lighter sentence than the original charge. Research indicates that along with reasoning and cooperation, the decision-making process also depends  on the following:  trust,  the relationship between each defendant and the prosecutor, past history with the law, and past negotiations. Other factors that may presumably be considered are cultural  beliefs on snitching,  loyalty, and friendship.

It has been theorized that direct and indirect external pressures as well as internal pressures were the most salient situational factors that contributed to a defendant’s choice in accepting a plea bargain. The research found that defendants who accepted a plea bargain after feeling pressure from an external source were more dissatisfied with the agreement than those who chose to plead out based on internal sources of pressure. More recent researchers have found that in some cases it may be in a defendant’s best interest to discuss the plea offer with their coconspirator or to reject the external pressure to plead because in the end, the prosecutor’s case for the original charge might have been dismissed altogether if it had gone to trial.

In 2009, research found a psychological effect of incarceration, which included depressive symptoms, anxiety, and distress. Researchers attributed situational involvement in prison gang violence as a major component for psychological distress. Other researchers have found that imprisonment, particularly of men, can also lead to an irreconcilable break in family dynamics as well as hinder the ability to obtain gainful employment upon release. Taking these factors into consideration may contribute to the decision-making process of a prisoner and could lead to false testimony or poor judgment, such as making a statement to the interrogator without seeking legal counsel. The need for self-preservation may be heightened, theoretically taking the logic and validity out of the “game.”

There exist many explanations of game theory and  Prisoners’  Dilemma,  each with  a varying prison  sentence. Some range from six months with no confession to 10 years if there is only one confession. The amount of prison time at stake is likely to be an important contributing factor in whether a prisoner will cooperate or defect. A lesser prison sentence may result in silence, while the threat of a harsh sentence may be coercive or lead to stress-related false confessions and/or accusations. In the classic example, at least one person will be punished, whether it’s for the crime accused or a more concrete charge that has less prison time. Although the potential exists for each person to be incarcerated, consequently reducing the importance of the length of the sentence from the perspective of the judicial system, it has been proposed that the successful implementation of the theory also depends on whether the relationship between the suggested punishment (plea bargain) and each prisoner’s view on the suggested sentence is strong enough to get the interrogator’s true desired outcome.


  1. Gregory, W. L., J. C. Mowen, and D. E. Linder. “Social Psychology and Plea Bargaining: Applications, Methodology, and Theory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v.36 (1978).
  2. Kreps, D., R. Wilson, P. Milgrom, and J. Roberts. “Rational Cooperation in the Finitely Repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma.” Journal of Economic Theory. v.27/2 (1982).
  3. Lave, Lester B. “An Empirical Description of the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game.” RAND Corporation. (1960). (Accessed April 2013).
  4. McDonald, W., H. Rossman, and J. Cramer. “The Prosecutor’s Plea Bargaining Decisions.” In The Prosecutor, W. McDonald, ed. London: Sage,
  5. O’Keefe, K. “Two Wrongs Make a Wrong: A Challenge to Plea Bargaining and Collateral Consequence Statutes Through Their Integration.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, v.100/1 (2010).
  6. Straffin, P. D. Game Theory and Strategy. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America, 1996.
  7. von Neumann, J. and O. Morgenstern. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944.

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