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Thinking and Deciding 18: Cooperation versus defection


Labaratory versions

The prisoner’s dilemma is the essential lab study of cooperation. There are a few varieties of it, including the repeating prisoner’s dilemma and the n-person dilemma, where the benefits of cooperation accrue to large numbers of other people instead of just one other.

Normative and prescriptive theory of social dilemmas

It is difficult to create a normative theory for action in social dilemmas because the two normative theories that Baron uses (utility theory vs. utilitarianism) can lead to contradicting outcomes. Utility theory is about the achievement of personal goals, whereas utilitarianism is about what is best for everyone as a whole. There is certainly some overlap, since sometimes we have altruistic personal goals, or what’s best for all is best for us, but this is not always the case.

As I see it, if two normative theories contradict, someone is making a mistake somewhere. Baron offers three different possible normative theories of social dilemmas, cooperative theory (do what would be best for everyone if everyone did that), self-interest theory (do what is best for you, ignoring others), and utilitarianism (cooperate if it benefits others more in total). Each of these has it’s own shortcomings. It doesn’t look like any theory by itself is the correct normative model.

Motives in social dilemmas

Altruistic desires, a desire for fairness, envy, fear, and greed are all motives for us to act one way or another in social dilemmas.

Voters’ illusions

Interesting perspective on a question I’ve struggled to answer.  It is better overall if more people vote, but how can individuals justify the time and effort put into voting? Baron offers many errors that people make in justifying voting. while acknowledging that maybe this self-deception is a good thing. Some people may vote because they overestimate the chances that their vote will make a difference, and/or overestimate the effect that such a difference will have on them. Others think that their act of voting has some sort of causal effect on others’ voting, instead of being an effect itself.

Baron doesn’t really offer a justification for voting, but may sweep away some poorer ones.

Solutions to social dilemmas

In tragedy of the commons type social dilemmas, penalties may tip the scales in favor of the beneficial action, ultimately helping everyone. Penalties remove the temptation of selfish action.

There’s also second order action, like voting for policies or elected officials. We vote for people who will decide for everyone, judging that this will benefit all. This takes away the temptation from individuals to cheat the system.

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