The Prisoner’s Dilemma on Facebook

I love social psychology, but if I could go to college and grad school again, I’d focus more on math and game theory.  Game theory is the mathematical study of decision making.  Rational decision making.  One of the two popularly known examples from game theory are the prisoner’s dilemma and the commons dilemma.  I teach both in my social psychology class.  The prisoner’s dilemma was developed at RAND in the 1950’s and usually is stated like this:

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates/assists), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do? [wikipedia]

The research focuses upon iterated prisoner’s dilemmas, when two individuals play this game several times over.  What is the best strategy to adopt to keep your collective sentence to a minimum?  Should you always defect or cooperate?  Should you switch?  Should you try to “game” your opponent or deduce their strategy and then build your strategy accordingly?

I play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.  It’s a time waster but an addictive game.  Most Facebook games are based upon exploiting your friends on Facebook to gain an advantage in the game and Bejeweled Blitz is no exception.  To gain high scores you need to “buy” boosts using “gold coins.”  Each day a player can send 35 sets of gift coins to your Facebook friends playing Bejeweled Blitz.  When receiving these gifts in your mailbox you accept the coins and then have the option of sending a set of gift coins back.

I send most of my gifts each day to my wife, because I know she will quickly send gifts back.  Today, as I was receiving gifts from my wife, I noticed that in the mailbox you had the option of just accepting the coins or accepting and returning a gift to the sender.


And then I realized that Bejeweled Blitz is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma.  I had the choice of defecting (accepting w/out returning) or cooperating (accepting and returning).  Since then I’ve found that there the prisoner’s dilemma can be found in other aspects of social networking.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply