A government worker disinfects a high school amid concerns about the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus in Manila, March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic example of a mathematical game, dating back to 1950. In brief, the problem goes as follows: Two criminal gang members are caught and imprisoned, each in solitary confinement with no means of mutual communication. The authorities do not possess sufficient evidence to convict them on the principal charge, but have enough to convict the duo on a lesser charge.

The prosecutors make each prisoner an offer: either betray their partner by testifying to the latter having committed the crime, or cooperate with each other and stay silent. If both betray each other, each serves two years in prison. If one betrays the other, but the latter remains silent, the former shall be set free, while the latter shall be sentenced to three years, and vice versa. If both opt to remain silent, they both shall serve only one year, for the lesser charge.

Remember that this a logical puzzle, and one need not take into account such factors as the possibility of post-betrayal revenge, or sentimentality of the convicts while considering it.

While metacognition, and meta-meta-cognition (an arms race of stepping into the other’s shoes, and thinking that the other person would also be thinking what you are thinking, then thinking that they would also in turn be aware of this, and so on), can yield complicated loops of futile reasoning, there exists a simple explanation of the problem if the prisoners are treated as rational, objective, ideal epistemic agents acting purely in self-interest. Either prisoner would rationally elect to betray the other because betrayal is overall expected to be less negatively rewarding than staying silent. So there is just one combination that would actually happen. Both betray each other and both get two years in prison.

In reality, human beings display what is categorized as a systemic bias toward cooperating, but nonetheless the experiment is an illustration of how there often is little or tantalizing motivation to cooperate, even when cooperation is guaranteed to benefit all parties. Rational people do not always opt to align their endeavors synergistically.

Mind the fact that to the individual, betrayal is indeed the best bet. However, in overview, had both prisoners faithfully cooperated, they could have availed the best possible combination – both serve just one year. But from one prisoner’s perspective, the former comes with the invariably accompanying risk of being betrayed, and the best possible case for him is walking free.

The problem, with some flexibility, can be applied to democracy, climate change, and more exactly as to why uncoordinated protests fizzle out quickly, and why peaceful mass mobilization was relatively uncommon prior to the development of remote communication.

With the recent outbreak of Covid-19, we have observed widespread dissonance among nations and governments. China’s stringent maintenance of secrecy, feigning normalcy and reluctance to report the crisis even as it spiraled out of control are largely responsible for introducing a large formative incubation to the outbreak that has led to it snowballing into a pandemic, which if left unchecked, may soon threaten civilization itself.

The animosity and alienation between the world’s two superpowers or blocs is responsible for preventing an early and collaborative scientific effort to devise a cure. Even now, as we stand at the brink, medical and pathological research teams across the world are competing in a race to devise a cure, where glory and selfishness rather than philanthropy and solidarity seem to be the prime motivations behind the urgency.

Anthropic sustenance, it seems, isn’t an ample incentive for leaders to curtail their egos. A joint, holistic, scientific effort of researchers from different backgrounds that would also lead to increased combinatorial creativity, cut trial times by parallel efforts, prevent the pitfalls of groupthink, and boost chances of serendipitous discoveries.

The UNESCO Science Report affirms the statistical significance of international scientific collaboration in yielding success. If anything, the ongoing volley of bioweapon accusations testifies to the frivolity, irresponsibility and cavalier nature of the most powerful and influential people on the planet. 

Akin to the cooperative outcome in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, if human beings cooperate they can eliminate this disease. This spans from the individual level to the international level, via families, communities, corporations, societies and other tiers of association.

By suffering some hedonistic and economic setbacks – bearing minor, temporary compromises – individuals can take the initiative to stay actively and proactively vigilant, maintain social distancing, deter themselves from visiting public places, enact physical barriers, and practice hygiene. Through a brief surrender of our entitlement to public resources, outdoor recreation, and physical company that we so take for granted, the virus can soon be curbed.

A self-imposed quarantine on the part of individuals would go a long way toward drastically limiting the disease’s expansion and flattening the curve before it stretches ill-prepared medical systems to the limit.

Taxed and tolled beyond capacity and readiness, health-care systems are struggling to contain and cope with the Covid-19 cases that already exist while working on devising remedies: They are torn between the two fronts of the battle.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, two rational agents do not necessarily cooperate. As educated swaths of the population present us with instances of outrageously irresponsible, gullible, nonchalant and thoughtless conduct, the epidemic has also exposed the insincerity and makeshift nature of Third World medical services, institutions, and professionals.

Covid-19, thanks to the affordability of flights, has become one of the most equitably distributed epidemics in history. Unlike plagues of the past born primarily of squalor and filth, Covid-19 even in its early and intermediate stages did not spare the wealthy and the powerful. Thus, irrespective of class and other attributes, individuals stand a sizable risk of contracting the ailment.

Yet educated and well-aware individuals often fail to take precautionary measures directed toward their own and others’ safety. Hedonism prevails over eudaemonism, hands-down. Eudaemonism, that is, the pursuit of well-being, takes a back seat in the sustained quest for short-term gratification.

This myopic sustenance of the status quo is regressive and uncharacteristic of what distinguished humans from other beasts and ascended them to paramountcy: foresight and delayed gratification. The same foresight and investment that led them to see beyond the obvious, petty pleasure of consuming a fruit, burying it instead to get a plant that bore a score such fruits, was the beginning of agriculture.

Corporations and businesses continue operation, withstanding sizable risks. Quarantine measures and social austerity come at the expense of economic activity and smooth functioning of vital financial sectors. Economies are taking a hit. However, the reason most corporates do not refrain from partaking in their routine operations can be explained by analogies from the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

A minor charge can be compared to temporary economic and material disruption. That would have been the sole significant setback had corporations cooperated. In this case the entire economic machinery would have toned down and shrunk, and thus everyone would have been affected more or less the same.

The problem, however, arises when some parties betray the faith. From a single corporation’s or businessman’s point of view, if they stay faithful, and other parties do not adhere to the bargain, they fall back in the competition. The disadvantage sustained could very plausibly be insurmountable, akin to one prisoner walking off free while the other suffers a massive loss.

The fear is of lastingly lagging behind in the competition, and being unable to close the gap once the crisis subsides. In intensely capitalist environments, losing out to sectoral competitors and rivals could mean the difference between leadership and perpetual struggle.

In a matter of survival versus doom, the hesitation of corporations to abstain isn’t entirely misplaced. Thus corporations and businessmen always elect to persist, even if it means facing the individual and collective risk of the epidemic.

Businesses distrust one another and seldom exchange intimate information with rivals, analogous to the solitary confinement of the prisoners. Thus when one corporation abstains, and the rest don’t, the epidemic grows all the same, that is, the major charge is borne, while the minor charge of a temporary economic loss plus the additional risk of being permanently outmatched are also incurred.

Each corporation sees the situation from this point of view, and none abstains. As a result, economic losses are limited (no minor charge) while the pandemic grows (major charge is incurred) as in the case of two years of imprisonment being meted out to each. Had each party practiced austerity sincerely and trusted the other, the epidemic would have been confined.

The same goes for individual students, professionals, and practically everyone pursuing a systematic ambition. In spite of the risk posed by the disease, each individual deems the situation the same way: if they do not turn up for the job, the test, the class, the coaching, or the training, and everyone else does, they fall behind in the competition permanently while not even so much as denting the spread of the disease – analogous to the three-year imprisonment. The only difference from the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that in this case, the other parties would not “walk free,” yet would suffer less compared with the abstainer.

Lack of intergovernmental coordination follows a similar pattern, albeit with more factors involved – national ego, jingoism, cult of personality, propaganda, resource dependence, exclusive trade interests, and apprehension of leaks of potentially sensitive information and intelligence (Wuhan houses one of China’s most important biosafety laboratory facilities – the alleged site mentioned in the sensationalist, unsubstantiated and baseless bioweapon claims).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma also has an extended “iterated” version, often used to model market behavior in economics. Here, the classic game is repeatedly played by the two convicts, who now continuously avail the opportunity to punish the other for their previous decisions. If the number of iterations of the game is known to them, the result will be the same all over again, as the rational agents will use backward induction from the last game, and repeated mutual betrayal shall ensue. For an indefinite – or infinite – game length, there exists no fixed optimum strategy, and cooperation may also prove optimal, occasionally.

Even with an indefinite length, the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game is not a very accurate model for one’s choices in a pandemic, but it offers fairly sound broad insight nonetheless. The key takeaway from the game is that effectively detrimental resultant outcomes can be born of rationality, while feasible and mutually beneficial outcomes, if led to (arrived at) by objective irrationality, are not preferable.

Envy is a salient trait of primates. It emotionally supercharges the sense of betrayal upon abstaining – fueling the conviction to avoid the prospect of double risk. In these testing times, comprehending the exponential growth of the epidemic can help us overcome this dilemma. Subjectivity, overview, and foresight go a long way – realizing that an epidemic is no single, ideal game, and left unchecked, has the potential to cripple, if not obliterate, the entire socioeconomic structure should enable us to look beyond personal interests.

If we envisage the evolution of the ailment, if everyone behaves selfishly, there are no victors – none walks free. 

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 40 outlets in 21 countries.