An Excursion into Game Theory

In order to better understand the actions of actors, there are several game theory approaches. One of them is the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

The hypothetical, game-theoretical situation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma assumes that the police have been able to thwart a crime. The problem now is to be able to prove this. Two of the perpetrators are seized and interrogated separately, without having previously had the opportunity to agree on a statement.

The amount of the punishment depends on whether the perpetrators confess: If neither of them confesses, only a very small punishment can be imposed. If both are admitted, a moderate sentence will be imposed. However, if only one of them confesses, leniency comes into effect for him and the other receives the highest possible punishment.

Strategy and result

The best individual strategy would be to testify and cooperate with the police to make sure you avoid the maximum penalty. However, if both prisoners choose this strategy, the result is far from optimal. The best result can only be achieved by mutual silence, which is very risky for all concerned because of their mutual mistrust.


Game-theoretical simulations such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma or “Chicken” are especially interesting if they are performed several times in succession. Depending on how the first games go, there will then be an unspoken cooperation of the prisoners or a cycle of mutual revenge and retribution.

The prisoner dilemma in politics

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, especially in international politics, appears in many different variations, such as the OPEC pricing, where a country’s austerity from price fixing improves its situation at the expense of other participants or NATO armaments States may be tempted to use the free-rider effect and minimize their arms spending and contribution to the Alliance as much as possible.

However, if all of this fails, a dangerous situation may occur that harms everyone.
Thus, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is still a useful, though at first very abstract, instrument that can be applied to many situations.