114 The Prisoners Dilemma

The obvious problem with the "team" arson strategy, is that for the rest of their lives, both persons share a nefarious secret. In a pinch, will both partners keep silent, or will one betray the other for more favorable treatment?

Interestingly enough, this problem has been well studied by mathematicians who specialize in game theory, and is called the "prisoner's dilemma." The basic problem, as considered in terms of game theory, was first discussed by the Princeton mathematician, Albert Tucker, in 1950. Essentially, the problem is this: assuming that both persons are arrested for arson and are not allowed to communicate with one another during interrogation, the available options for the two arsonists are as follows:

1. They both keep mum in hopes of either beating a conviction, or receiving a lighter sentence due to a lack of corroborative evidence.

2. One arsonist tells on the other to obtain a lighter and perhaps commuted sentence, while the other one stays mum.

3. They both tell on each other and both receive maximum sentences.

If the object is to minimize the total prison time of both culprits, option 1 is likely the best choice. However, this requires that each prisoner trust the loyalty of the other. While option 1 does minimize the total prison time of both culprits, it does not minimize the individual prison time of either prisoner.

If one person wants to get off as lightly as possible and has no abiding loyalty to his partner, option 2 is the best option. He simply "rats out" his partner in return for the lightest possible sentence. This occurs, of course, while the partner is keeping mum, thinking that his coconspirator has also maintained loyalty.

However, there is the risk that if both prisoners think that option 2 is the best deal, then they may both end up getting option 3, which is the worst possible outcome.

Skillful questioning by law investigative authorities usually attempts to convince each suspect that option 2 is the best bet. That is why suspects are usually kept separated when questioning is done. When they are kept separate, they cannot collude and reinforce each other's testimony as their stories are told. When an alibi story has been fabricated by the suspects to create a plausible lie, it is difficult for both parties to separately invent all the tiny but obvious details that a person would know and remember who had actually been there. The two testimonies are then compared for discrepancies, and these discrepancies can be used to confront the witnesses.

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