The Platform


A classic, elementary game theory problem, called the prisoner’s dilemma offers insights into seemingly errant mass behaviour in the face of a multifaceted crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a simple logical puzzle – an example of a mathematical ‘game’ presented as a real-world scenario. The problem describes a situation where two gang members are apprehended and incarcerated. Each is placed in solitary confinement and cannot communicate with the other. The authorities lack sufficient evidence to convict them for the main charge, but they do possess enough evidence to convict them on a lesser charge. The prisoners are presented an offer – they have a choice to betray their partner by testifying against them, or to stay faithful and keep mum. If both stay silent, each gets sentenced to a single year of imprisonment on the lesser charge. If both happen to betray each other, each has to serve two years. If one of them betrays the other, but the other doesn’t, the first shall be set free, and the latter will get three years in prison.

Disregarding any assumptions, spare the fact that the participants in this problem are both rational, they will both choose to betray the other, despite the fact that had they both trustfully cooperated, they would have gotten a better outcome. From the perspective of the individual prisoner, however, cooperating is risky – as much as it can award them the best bargain, they also stand the significant risk of being handed the longest sentence. But, in the overview, we can observe that two rational agents won’t cooperate even if not cooperating means getting the worse overall outcome for both, because they don’t trust each other.

The dilemma has been used to explain markets, democracy, and climate change – as to why nations won’t tone down their industrialisation and fossil-fuel dependence a notch just because they don’t trust other nations to do so, and feel that they might suffer an immediate economic blow and setback by doing so. This is also the reason behind mass mobilisation attempts failing in lack of coordination – people do not turn up out of apprehension of being singled out.

Even with a global, likely existential threat facing humanity, we have observed great dissonance among nations and governments. Chinese and American premiers and other top administrative figures have exchanged slander and barbs, including but not limited to bioweapon accusations. Conspiracies are casual and mainstream, as namecalling and even sporadic volleys of xenophobic slurs ensue. China’s resolute secrecy, so-called pretense of control, and guise of normalcy have attracted both just and unjust criticism.

The New York Times stated that the ongoing search for a potential COVID-19 vaccine had become an international competition – a race for deriving a sense of patriotic, chauvinistic fulfillment. It is merely a means for political leaders to maintain their scope and retain their flimsy ground of proclamations, assertions, and hubris. Politicians invoke, channel, and exploit nationalist sentiment to preserve their position amidst the challenge, uncertainty, popular discontent, and insecurity. Had China not made attempts to hush the epidemic amidst occasional demands to share its information, had European nations not acted as stoic, mute spectators from the sidelines as if they were beyond the reach of the contagion in this globalised world, and had the world’s nations, even today, launched a united effort – a joint front comprising of medicinal scientists, doctors, virologists, pharmacologists, and epidemiologists to tackle the pandemic as the pan-civilisation threat that it is, we might even have been out of dire straits by now.

Global research and the humanitarian task force could coordinate endeavours better. Nevertheless, politicians are glorifying their scientists for isolating the strain or devising promising partial remedies, and are busy patting their backs for supposedly minimising the damage. Countries are very reluctant to share or even request mutual research information. There is the scope of accompanying strategic interests being slightly compromised. Then there are firms looking to benefit from the market uncertainty – capitalising on the uncertainty and evening of the markets worldwide. The true nature and full extent of the outbreak infection in Wuhan – the origination site, remain hereto shrouded in mystery and speculation. A lot remains undisclosed.

Until the very time it had really gotten out of hand, China had rigidly resisted pressure to yield any information on the outbreak, doing as much to contain its wind than the epidemic itself. Having concealed its tracks for far too long, China finally afforded minimal, elementary intimation on the outbreak, that too a palpably begrudging admission. Partly responsible for this stringent surreptitiousness, is the presence of China’s most important biological research facility in Wuhan, in high proximity to the suspected site of the viral outbreak.

A small group of people from a similar cultural, professional and societal background tend to err similarly and are prone to sharing and being influenced by the prejudices of their peers – a phenomenon called groupthink – a dangerous pitfall often suffered by those in academia. Larger and more diverse teams have higher chances of making serendipitous discoveries as well as greater combinatorial creativity. UNESCO’s Science Report showed that international scientific collaboration plays a pivotal role in the advancement of science. Disregarding all probabilities, international collaboration would simply enable much lower trial times owing to parallel working vide plain old division of labour.

Just as the “both cooperate” case in the afore-discussed problem, if humans cooperate – whether at the individual, community, corporate, societal, or national level, the disease can be overcome sooner and with lesser damage. Individuals and corporations can minimise damage by shouldering minor monetary losses. However, from one corporation’s point of view, temporarily shutting operations would lead them to suffer a major setback if no other cooperation does so. For a businessman, student, or any professional, obeying the social distancing and self-quarantine and thus temporarily suspending their career pursuits, or taking a hiatus from their continual striving, would imply trusting their peers to do so.

If the latter criterion does not get fulfilled, the individual would fear lagging behind in the competition insurmountably and suffering an irreparable setback in the contemporary, cutthroat-competitive globalist, capitalist world. If a certain company backs out for the sake of doing its part in preventing the epidemic and its rivals don’t, it would not just stagnate in the absolute sense but suffer a relative loss of position that could never be coped with. In competitive environments like ours, stasis is tantamount to a free fall. If one doesn’t trust the others to cooperate, and everyone does so, we all lose. One entity cooperating, while the rest do not would not so much as dent the overall pandemic but also likely deal an immense setback to the individual, perhaps beyond the scope of redemption and recovery. Thus, despite cooperating to quickly (relatively) overcome the epidemic, it is human nature to act so as to collectively delay its defeat. Had everyone shed this mentality and merely trusted each other to obey their respective ends of the bargain, the curve would have soon been flattened and ensured that the healthcare system gets, at worst, a steady, gradual, and rarified stream of cases, which can be streamlined and sorted out with relative ease.

The minor charge mentioned in the problem is analogous to the temporary economic and material disruption. In the cooperation case, the entire economic system would have evenly reduced, and everyone would have been affected, roughly the same. However, if only one does so, by and large, they get eliminated from the competition and their future prospects get decimated – the major charge, while everyone also suffers from the effects of the largely unaffected pandemic, whatsoever. The double whammy perceived in not turning up for one’s class, coaching, gym, or practice, while others do, maybe explained along the same competitive lines. Nations experience the same pang – cooperating in research would also mean risking sharing sensitive advances of strategic or competitive interests through facilities, equipment, connections, and personnel.

So does the prisoner’s dilemma promise pessimism? Are collective interests and rationality irreconcilable? Well, here’s the catch – an iterated version of the problem exists, after which real-life situations – such as human behavioural response to an epidemic, can be better modeled. Here, the classic game is played by the two again and again, and they can now continuously have the chance to punish their counterpart for their previous betrayal. For an indefinitely-long game (just as in the epidemic situation), there is no fixed optimum strategy and in some cases, cooperation also proves optimal. That is not the only silver lining. One must realise that an epidemic is neither a single game, nor an ideal one, nor one with fixed rules, and if it is left unchecked, it has the potential to obliterate civilisation itself. If we just comprehend that acting selfishly would, here, lead to no winners – only temporary ones, and the ultimate fate of every betrayal is doom, we shall spontaneously take initiative and cooperate to take it down. That shall be the greatest act of solidarity in humankind’s history.

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, journalist, writer, and researcher.