Prisoner’s Dilemma: Students vs Prisoners Edition

If you were caught by the cops after your huge casino heist went belly-up, who should you trust more: a grizzled old convict you teamed up with because he knew every con in the book, or the fresh-faced college student who was supposed to silence the security system? If new research is correct, you might be better off trusting the convict.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization, prisoners are more likely to cooperate with each other when subjected to that mainstay of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, than college students. If you’ve never heard of the prisoner’s dilemma, it works like this: Police have two prisoners isolated, and they need them to talk, so they offer a deal. If prisoner A rats out prisoner B, or vice versa, he goes free. However, if they rat out each other, the police will have all information they need, so both will go to jail. If neither talks, the police won’t have enough information to put them away for a full term, so both will get a light sentence.

Of course, a prisoner gets the best pay-out (i.e., freedom) if he rats out his fellow prisoner, but then again, if both prisoners pursue the best pay-out, they both get screwed, so it’s generally better for both if they keep mum. According to the study, real-life prisoners were likely to cooperate with each other, thus getting a decent outcome for both of them. College students, however, all of whom were PhD candidates, were more likely to screw each other over, generally leading to worse outcomes.

So, what’s at play here? Are college students trying to maximize their outcomes, or do they think that it’s easier to trick their fellow students? Possibly, but there are a few other things that could’ve affected the outcome of the study:

  • Prisoners were generally older than the students, and were all female. Either could be factors for how often they’re likely to cooperate with each other.
  • Prisoners were far more likely to have kids than the students, suggesting that they have more to lose.
  • Prisoners were told that their identities would remain anonymous, but they may not have trusted the researchers.

So, what to take away from this? To be on the safe side, don’t enter a criminal enterprise with a college student. Of course, to be even safer, don’t get caught.

Photo courtesy of sw77

This is a test