Poll: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

By Douglas Patz

Last week I made a poll asking what Mei users thought the world’s biggest problem was. This week I decided to do something a bit different. In this weeks poll you have 2 choices: A, and B. If everyone picks A, I will use the winner poll system to let everyone split a prize of 100 Mei credits. Seems simple enough, well there’s one little complication, answer B. If exactly one person picks answer B, they win the entire prize of 100 credits. But if more than one person picks B, nobody gets anything. I then asked a second question to people who picked B, asking them why they picked it. With the poll set, I sent it out to 20 people to see what they would do.

The first 4 people to answer the poll all chose A. I was a bit surprised by this, because I was expecting people to be greedier. But then person number 5 came and confirmed my suspicion that people would be greedy and chose B. 3 More people answer A, but then a second B was received. At this point all hope was lost for poll respondents to get anything, but I let it run anyway just to see how many people would pick B. In the end exactly 25% of people chose answer B, and 75% picked A. Nobody skipped the question or said none of the above, I suppose the promise of credits was to good to pass up on.

I provided 3 choices of answer for the second question (why did you pick B?). The first choice was “because I thought nobody else would”, the second was “because I knew someone else would and I didn’t want them to win the prize”, and the final possible answer was “I just wanted to mess with people”. Out of the 6 people who picked B, 2 people chose answer 1, 2 chose answer 2, and 2 chose answer 3. Again no one skipped or picked none of the above.

I ran the poll two more times, one time for exclusively women, and one for exclusively men. The women were very close to winning a prize, only 2 people chose B. Only one man chose B, so he was our only prize winner of the day. It seems that there is not a huge difference between the choices of men and the choices of women for this poll. But it’s not a large enough sample size to say.

I was quite surprised by the results. I was expecting most people to pick B. But I guess I underestimated Mei users, as they seem to all be quite willing to share. Or perhaps they were familiar with the problem I based this poll on: the prisoner’s dilemma. In the prisoner’s dilemma, 2 prisoners have been caught and have the option to stay silent or snitch. If both prisoners stay silent, they will each get one year in prison. If one snitches and the other stays silent, the one who stayed silent gets 3 years, and the snitch gets to walk free. But if both snitch, both of the prisoners get 2 years. The question is: which option is better?

The answer is that there isn’t really a better option. On the one hand if everyone agreed to stay silent, it would be better than if everyone always snitched. But if someone knew that the other person would stay silent, then they should snitch. There are a bunch of variations of this game, but they all keep the same general gist: do you cooperate with the other player(s) and get a small reward, or do you betray the other player(s) and get a large reward with the risk of no reward?

Overall I really enjoyed doing this little experiment. And though the results were surprising, it seems that they are also consistent. In general, people are willing to work together. Or maybe the takeaway is that people are gullible. I can’t decide which one.

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