Prisoner’s Dilemma – You or Them

mexican standoff

     The prisoner’s dilemma, also known as the Mexican standoff, is basically kind of like five people pointing their guns at each other. If one shoots, the others shoot as well and they all die. On the other hand, if none of them shoot, then everyone gets to live. But if you get more benefits from killing one than letting everyone live, what would you do? Recently, in our English class, we experienced such a dilemma. We got into groups of about four and created our own characters. Afterwards, we were to make a story up, write it for a couple of minutes, and let the rest of the group members to finish it, incorporating their own characters into each others’ papers.Then, he gave all of us a different-colored piece of paper with our tasks on it, which we weren’t allowed to show each other. In the end, it was revealed that all of our tasks were the same. The task stated that if we were to kill a character, we would receive fifteen extra-credit points. However, if our own character got killed, we received none. If all the characters were to live at the end of all the stories, then everyone in the group would have received five extra-credit points. This was where the dilemma was – should we kill someone’s character off, risking our own,  so we can get fifteen extra-credit points? Or kill none so we can receive five each?

“If two people commit a crime together, are caught, and then separated and interrogated, what happens? That’s their dilemma. Do they tell on each other in hopes that [they] will go easy on them – a plea bargain? Do they refuse to say anything that would betray their partner? The best scenario is for both to say nothing. Then they can both be safe.”


“But that never happens. Because one prisoner will almost always betray the other…” – Matched

During this activity, we both killed numerous characters in all the stories. We must admit that it was a pretty bad choice. We killed off all the characters in the story, ruining own own character plots, and the story-line of the other writers. We also ruined our chances of getting extra credit. If that story had been real life, we were the crazy, stupid people that would have fired the first shot in our groups, scaring the other members into reacting. The funny thing about this is that the prisoner’s dilemma, or Mexican standoff, applies to life. Even though, literally, we are not given a gun and asked to take down lives in order to live, we are given chances to take others down to achieve our goals.


cheating students

Let’s say you’ve been slacking in your classes lately and your grades have dropped. You have only one test before grades are finalized and sent home. Acing that one test can bring your grade up to something you find more satisfying. You studied pretty hard, but the test was even harder than you expected. Desperate for that one letter grade bump, you’re debating whether to cheat or not. If you just nudge the passive smart girl or boy next to you so you can take a peek, the chances of you getting that ‘A’ is higher. However, you will risk getting caught and failing the test, as well as risking the other student’s test grade. You decide that you need to take that risk and do what you have in mind. You nudge the smart kid next to you and whisper, “Hey.. let me see your test paper.” The kid answers hesitantly, “I’m not really sure that’s a good idea…” You keep pestering him/her until she gives in. The teacher finds you two whispering to each other, immediately walks over,  and rips the two test papers in half. You both get a zero on the test and your semester final grades are the worst you have ever gotten before. You chose the selfish decision to risk not only your own grade, but an innocent student’s grade as well for a goal that could have possibly been achieved if you just continued on with the test.

Nation vs. Nation


The prisoner’s dilemma takes place in both the past and the present. In the past, during the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union created nuclear weapons. Because of the fact that the U.S. supported democratic governments and the Soviet Union supported Communist governments, along with many other factors, these two nations were on the brink of a nuclear war. They were basically waiting for that first shot which would mark the beginning of the war. In the present time, North Korea is threatening the U.S. (and South Korea) with nuclear bombing, and declare they will launch it if the U.S. or South Korea “provoked” them. Obama also has a button that can launch a bomb on North Korea. They are also waiting, like in the past with the Cold War, for that first sign or first shot that would signal a nuclear war. This may be ignorant for me to say, but in my opinion, if they all just put down their weapons, to keep the other party from feeling threatened, this fear of utter destruction would not be upon us. They are risking millions of lives, possibly a nation, on both sides. Each side is hoping that it would be the other side that loses. After all, at the end of the day, it’s you or them. Just like the quote mentioned earlier, “the best scenario is for them to [do] nothing. Then … both [nations] can be safe.”

German Stasi (History lesson again)

Under communist rule, Germany, in the late twentieth century was placed under strict discipline. The communist at the time were determined to keep their power every where in their holdings, especially in Germany. They set up secret police organizations in their holdings, but none was more forceful than the German Stasi. The Stasi estimated to be about 100,000 people. They kept files on six million German citizens-bugged them, phone tapped them, and recorded them-hoping to get evidence for an arrest. This constant danger of being accused falsely, led many German citizens to report on their own kind. They believed that if they reported someone, then they themselves would be saved from investigation. However, no one was really save from being arrested by the Stasi. The Stasi members themselves would even plan an investigation on each other. I would hate to be in Germany at that time. It’s hard to believe that people had done that at the time, driven by fear. It’s hard to say that I wouldn’t have done the same. And it’s even harder to believe that all the false accusations could have been stopped if one coward hadn’t turned on his neighbor and pointed the finger. The sides are against me once again as I write this post. On one side, I consider the fear embedded in the peoples’ hearts. On the other, I consider the idea that all the wrong deaths and trials that happened because of the peoples’ cowardliness.

I understand that sometimes fear drives people to illogical actions; I’m not new to that idea. I killed about five people in the activity my teacher provided, even without the motivation of fear (maybe fear of not getting etra credit?). However, the Germans and the Stasi proved to me how crucial this ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is to us as human beings. As human beings, we act a lot on the pressure of our feelings, and it clouds us from making the obvious choice, and drives us to make the selfish, irrational ones. We all just want to give into the calling, and let ourselves do whatever makes us feel safe. But, events like the German Stasi proves that caving into the instinct calling doesn’t really work out well. If the German citizens had worked together; not ‘shooting’ each other, but at the communist government instead, I feel that they would have been a bit happier. They might have gone to war with the communist, but at least they still had their dignity, nationalism, and independence. However, that’s not how it happened. What happened was a reign of terror in Germany. But, something good did come out of it. A lesson to us, the future. Well at least to me, looking back on the situation, it give me more understanding of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. It makes me incorporate the idea of fear into consideration. Fear is a reasonable reason to drive cowardliness into our actions, but we have to learn to push off the fear because becoming like the Strasi doesn’t sound so pleasant. Even though the human race does have all these fears and are always tempted to save themselves, I like to believe that this history makes a bit of a difference. It teaches us to trust each other, rather than be tricked into betrayal by our sense of fear.


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