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  • Sanskriti Sinha

Prisoner’s Dilemma

Updated: Oct 1, 2022

The world is complicated. Different people behave in different ways and have been doing so for centuries. The society we live in and its intricacies are challenging to understand. How should one act? What is morally correct? How should a society work? What are our responsibilities? What do we owe to one another? What is the meaning of life? These are just a few fundamental questions that Philosophy attempts to answer.


Philosophy is the study of fundamental truths of society, relationships, and oneself. The Queen of Science has numerous theories which have been developing since the sixth century BC. To further explain these complicated theories, philosophers create certain paradoxical thought experiments.


One such theory is the Social Contract Theory. The theory states that the members of society follow a specific set of rules to maintain order as long as everyone else agrees to the same. These sets of rules can be explicit like the Law as demonstrated by the Constitution of India or implied like politeness rules such as asking for permission before borrowing someone's pencil. The first Modern Philosopher to explore the Social Contract Theory was Thomas Hobbes. He believed that everyone only really cared for themselves and acted solely in self-interest. For example, Hobbes believed that nobody needed to ask for permission to borrow one's pencil, everyone was meant to do whatever benefitted them the most. Of course, this suggested a very grim community; consequently, Hobbes stated that the only way the world attained peace was through the Social Contract Theory.


The Contract would have everyone agree to the statement, "I authorise and give up my Right of Governing myself, to this Man, or this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner." In other words, one would only agree to cooperate (live in order) and not defect (live however they wish to) as long as others did too.


An experiment that explains this version of the Social Contract Theory is the Prisoner's Dilemma. The Dilemma involves two people, let us consider you and me. You and I have together robbed a bank nearby. We both have been arrested and are being interrogated separately and do not have any method of communication or any reason for trust. The policeperson interrogating each of us offers both of us the following deal:

  1. You remain silent (cooperate):

    1. If you remain silent and I do so too, we will be sentenced to one year of prison each.

    2. If you remain silent and I betray and tattle on you (defect), you will be sentenced to three years of prison whereas I will walk free.

  2. You betray and tattle on me (defect):

    1. If you defect, you will walk free whereas I will be sentenced to three years of prison.

    2. If you defect and I also defect, we will be sentenced to two years of prison each.


The experiment considers both of us to be Rational Agents which refers to people who only act in a way to benefit themselves, which according to Hobbes' theory is how everyone behaves. By that logic, the third deal- you defect with zero prison time and I am left with three years of prison- is the deal you would choose as it benefits you more than the one or two years of prison you might get otherwise.


However, can you truly trust me? If you trust me and think that I will cooperate and follow the first deal- both of us remain silent and get 1 year of prison each, but then I defect and betray you then that follows the second deal- you remain silent to get three years of prison and I talk to be free. This will benefit me and hurt you. If you do not trust me and think I will choose to defect, you will defect as well. That will follow the fourth deal- both of us defect to receive two years of prison each. This will hurt both of us even though you and I were both trying to benefit ourselves.


The first deal- you and I both remain silent to get one year of prison each- is overall the best deal. As we explored earlier, the second and third deals have extreme results and less probability of actually happening because both of us will only want to do what is best for ourselves. Moreover, the fourth deal is what will most probably happen because we will both act in self-interest and this one harms both of us.


The only reason we would be able to execute the first deal and get the least punishment is if we cooperate and trust each other. You would be giving your selfishness believing that I, too, am agreeing to do the same. In other words, the best scenario of peace and order is only obtained if we follow the Social Contract Theory.



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