The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Attempting to Define Conflict

If we asked different people, what is a conflict? , we would most likely get various definitions, in the same way that different subject areas provide different perspectives and insights. Nonetheless, almost everyone seems to agree that a conflict involves certain aspects like an argument, problems, competition, different viewpoints, different needs, etc.

Even though when we are faced with conflict we can choose to be cooperative or competitive and opposing, we can resolve it or draw it out, we can consider it destructive or constructive, we can all agree that conflict exists in the world whether we like it or not.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

There are two murder suspects: A and B. The prosecutor wants the maximum punishment for both but to do that, he needs at least one of them to confess.

The prosecutor then thinks up a “perverse” game and the two suspects are separated into two different cells. They are spoken to individually and each is proposed the same thing: You can choose to confess, remain silent or accuse the other person, that being said…

  • If neither admits to anything, there will be a light sentence and both will only serve 4 years each.
  • If one person accuses the other and the other remains silent, the first person will go free and the other will serve the maximum time: fifty years.
  • If both confess or accuse each other, the punishment will be fifteen years for both.

 From an individual perspective, the best option for each suspect would be to accuse the other person because if the other does not accuse them, they will go free and if they both give each other up they will only serve fifteen years each. If A does not accuse B, two things can happen: B does accuse A and B will serve maximum prison time, or B does not confess and both will only serve four years.

If A and B were able to communicate with each other, they would choose the best option for both of them: not accuse each other. However, no one knows what the other person will do (Is the other person a traitor? Can I trust them? Do I risk a life sentence in prison? Am I a traitor? Should I choose four years in prison or choose my freedom? Will my partner punish me for giving him away? Is the persecutor trying to trick us?

If both choose to confess, in reality the prosecutor wins and both go to jail for fifteen years. However, if one of them considers the best option for both of them(not confess) while the other only thinks about himself, they run the risk of being played a fool and lose while the other goes free.

This dilemma is a “game” derived from game theory, originally developed by a mathematician and an economist to calculate probability in the 60s.

It may seem that the prisoner’s dilemma is no more than a math exercise, but it exemplifies two main attitudes that we can take on while managing conflict: cooperate or become opponents. Additionally, it helps to develop the polysemic term conflict which has no single or clear definition, since there are just as many definitions as there are authors that try to define it.

Up till that point, there was a distinction between what was understood as internal or psychological conflict and what was understood as social conflict. From that point on, conflict has been studied from a single point of view which develops conflict based on two characteristics:

  • Conflict involves interdependent parts.
  • Behaviour facing conflict involves both costs and benefits for those involved.

The example conflict in the prisoner’s dilemma is what is called non- zero-sum game or conflict of motives and it works to highlight the majority of conflict in life where the alternatives, motives, situations, pressure and possible solutions are all much more complex than what are called sum-zero conflicts. These conflicts are defined by presenting only two possibilities of either winning or losing. When one person wins, it is exactly what the other loses and the sum is zero at the end.

An example of a sum-zero conflict is when two people are playing chess and one person wins and the other loses (unless they end in a stalemate). In this case however, it would only be sum-zero if the conflict was isolated from human interest; perhaps a parent is playing with their child to teach them (it might be better to let them win), or maybe you are competing in a tournament, or playing against a computer program to either learn or just pass the time. Why are we really playing? What is our motive?

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