Prisoner's Dilemma

In Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy. New York, NY, USA: pp. 24-61 (2016)
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As these opening quotes acknowledge, the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) represents a core puzzle within the formal mathematics of game theory.3 Its rise in conspicuity is evident figure 2.1 above demonstrating a relatively steady rise in incidences of the phrase’s usage between 1960 to 1995, with a stable presence persisting into the twenty first century. This famous two-person “game,” with a stock narrative cast in terms of two prisoners who each independently must choose whether to remain silent or speak, each advancing self-interest at the expense of the other and thereby achieving a mutually suboptimal outcome, mires any social interaction it is applied to into perplexity. The logic of this game proves the inverse of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: individuals acting on self interest will achieve a mutually suboptimal outcome. However, as this chapter illuminates, the assumptions underlying game theory drive this conclusion.

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S. M. Amadae
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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