Why should I trust you? The prisoners’ dilemma

(by Joris)

For several years, starting my own company has been a recurrent dream. Time and again it reappeared but there was always something that held me back from making the big jump. One day, a new colleague joined the team and I realised that the only reason why this business of mine never got beyond the drawing board was my reluctance to start it totally on my own. I needed a business partner, someone I could cooperate with and that I could trust. This colleague turned out to be the right business partner indeed and in less than a year we had founded “Indra Partners”.

Having colleagues that you can trust and with whom you can work together in a natural way is one of the key elements of a successful team. Team members are supposed to support each other in reaching a shared objective. This requires a great deal of trust but this does not necessarily come automatically… it’s no wonder that a lot of company money is spent on team building activities.

Often, there is a paradox between the way teams are supposed to function and the way companies organise themselves.

Trust and cooperation may be proclaimed of paramount importance, but would it not make more sense to look at your personal interest first?

Within teams it’s all about common goals, readiness to take a risk or going the extra mile for the team. Outside the team context, the focus totally changes. Bonuses and other rewards are linked to individual performance, your position in a complex hierarchy is important and competition among colleagues is stimulated.
At its worst, this results in a culture of blaming and shaming, avoidance of being held responsible and being afraid of speaking up.

Companies like these are built on fear - fear to disobey the rules, to follow the correct procedures, to make the wrong impression.
Trust and cooperation may be proclaimed of paramount importance, but would it not make more sense to look at your personal interest first?

There is a well known model that helps us find the right answer to this question. It’s called the “prisoners’ dilemma”. This has originated in the game theory which is a study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.

In a nutshell:
Suppose two criminals are suspected of committing a crime and are interrogated in separate rooms. The police does not have sufficient proof in order to have them convicted and offers both individuals the same deal:

  • a) If one confesses that they both committed the crime and the other remains silent, charges against the first will be dropped and the second will get a 6-year sentence.
  • b) If they both confess, they will serve a 4-years sentence.
  • c) If they both remain silent, they will only have to serve 2 years.

The prisoners have to decide individually and cannot confer. What should they do?

If the criminals trust each other, they remain silent and will each get the minimum sentence of 2 years. If they both make what seems to be the obvious choice, they will get 4 years. If one makes a different choice than the other, one of them will have to spend 6 years in jail and the other will walk freely.

The prisoner’s dilemma is about choosing between the most profitable approach for an individual (compete) or for the group as a whole (cooperate).

It shows that when each individual prisoner pursues his own self-interest, the total outcome is worse than if they both cooperate. In this example, cooperation would get both prisoners a total prison sentence of 4 years. All other outcomes would result in a combined sentence for the two of either 6 years or 8 years.

The best option, to remain silent, requires a great deal of trust and that’s why it’s not the obvious or rational choice. If an individual prisoner decides to remain silent, it is certain that he will spend 2 years in prison; if he confesses, there’s always the chance to walk free, therefore the individual benefit of confessing would be greater. A rational person who is only interested in the maximum benefit for himself would prefer to compete rather then cooperate.

But it gets even more interesting. In a continuous series of decisions, you might wonder how one prisoner’s decision impacts the other prisoner’s decision. If I find out that you didn’t trust me in the first round, I’m obviously not going to trust you in the second round. However, if I find out that you did give me that trust to begin with, I’ll be inclined to trust you as well the next time around.

Choosing between cooperation or competition is a decision that has to be taken again and again.

In 2013 economists at the University of Hamburg put a group of prisoners in Lower Saxony's primary women's prison and a group of students through both simultaneous and sequential versions of the dilemma. To their surprise only 37% of students cooperated in the simultaneous game whereas inmates cooperated 56% of the time. In the sequential game, far more students (63%) cooperated but for prisoners, it remains about the same.

Sequential prisoners’ dilemma is what happens in most organisations: choosing between cooperation or competition is a decision that has to be taken again and again. That the vast majority of both students and prisoners prefer to cooperate is because all humans are essentially social beings. We like to collaborate and to help each other and it’s a pity that too often organisations’ rules and structures prevent us from being kind.

As you can guess for yourself : trust and cooperation are always the best starting point.
By focusing on individual performance, installing internal competition and ranking employees at the end of the year, organisations promote the opposite choice. It may have made them temporarily economically successful but it also explains why many of them are now struggling with lack of engagement and commitment from their employees, with absenteeism, stress and burn-out… often resulting in a lagging financial performance .

“Indra Partners” shares the conviction that trust and cooperation will improve engagement and connectedness and that this will lead to better business results.

In our trainings we help participants rediscover the benefits and joy of cooperating and regain trust in themselves, their colleagues, their management and the organisation they work for. That’s what we mean by connected learning.

Have you ever been confronted with the prisoners’ dilemma? Do you think that cooperation is always the best choice or are there situations where self-interest should prevail?

More about the prisoners' dilemma:

Prisoners’ dilemma on Wikipedia
The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton
The nature of human altruism, Ernst Fehr & Urs Fischbacher
Game theory calls cooperation into question, Scientific American, February 2015


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