Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Thomas. Thomas Wonders, “What is the Prisoners Dillema?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Thomas!

Let’s start today’s Wonder of the Day with a hypothetical situation. Imagine you are sitting alone in a room. There’s a table in front of you. On the table are two buttons labeled “A” and “B.” A person enters your room and offers you a deal.

What’s the deal? In a separate room, a complete stranger is sitting in front of two buttons identical to yours. If you both press Button A, the person will give you each five dollars. That sounds pretty great, right? 

But wait—if you press Button B, the person may give you 100 dollars. They may also offer you no money at all. That’s a big difference! And it would depend on the actions of the stranger. If both of you press Button B, you’ll both walk away with no money. If only one of you does so, that person will receive 100 dollars. The other person will get nothing.

What choice would you make? Would you go for the big money? Or would you play it safe, hoping you’ll be five dollars richer? Can you trust the other person to press Button A, too? What a tough decision! 

This scenario is an example of a prisoner’s dilemma. That’s any situation in which people are given two options. They can choose to make a sacrifice and cooperate with all those involved. Or they can act in their own self-interest at the expense of others. Many people find it difficult not to choose the latter. But when they do, both parties lose.

Why is it called a prisoner’s dilemma? Well, it’s named after prisoners! The original paradox was based on the scenario of two partners-in-crime faced by the police. Given the chance to defect for a lower jail sentence, most people will take it, even if it means their partner gets a longer sentence. Police officers use this method to get people to confess to crimes when more than one person is involved.

Of course, there are plenty of other examples of the prisoner’s dilemma. One is the tragedy of the commons. It’s based on the reality that all people share some resources in common with others. Often, these shared resources aren’t well-protected. One example is deforestation. Everyone on Earth relies on trees for oxygen. However, many large companies and the people who lead them choose to use trees for their own self-interest. They destroy forests to make money. This leads to the problem of deforestation, which hurts everyone. Protection of the forests relies on people cooperating for the greater good instead of acting only in their own self-interest.

The prisoner’s dilemma is also used in game theory. This is the study of how people choose strategies while in competition with other people or groups. When faced with a prisoner’s dilemma in a video game, for example, will players do what’s best for the team or what’s best for themselves? This doesn’t only apply to games, however. One very real application of the prisoner’s dilemma and game theory can be seen in the nuclear arms race of the 1900s. 

During the Cold War, both parties—the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—had two options. They could continue creating nuclear weapons, or they could cease to do so. A situation where both sides stopped creating weapons was best for all involved. However, neither side trusted the other to cease arms build up. Therefore, they both acted in their own self-interests. They continued to build nuclear weapons until the end of the Cold War.

Have you decided? Would you press Button A or Button B? It’s a tough choice that most people would struggle with. What other examples of the prisoner’s dilemma can you think of?

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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You can look forward to another great Onder-way of-yay e-thay Ay-day tomorrow!