“Hi,” the tall, thin, black man with glasses said to you as you crouched on the street, pretending to tie your shoelaces so you didn’t have to make eye contact with the acquaintance across the street who squarely occupied the uncanny valley between friend and stranger.
“Um. Hi?” You respond.
“That was a very clever move. Do you think you’re a clever person?” he asks.
“I guess so” you say.
“Have you heard of the prisoner’s dilemma?” he asks.
Well that was out of nowhere. “Yes, everyone has. Two people, hierarchy of returns, always defect unless there’s a threat of a mafia lord or government.”
“That’s the one” is the last thing you hear before getting roughly shoved onto the sidewalk, blindfolded and tossed over a shoulder. Then everything goes dark.
When you wake up, you’re in an enormous conference room at an oval table that through some optical illusion, doesn’t seem to end. All the seats are filled, but you have no idea how many people are in the room.
The man from before strolls in through a door you didn’t realize was there and says, “You’re all perfectly rational people. Everyone in here can do the same calculations. Everyone in here knows how to maximize their profit from a game theoretical standpoint. This is a prisoner’s dilemma with mmfghsh people.” You strain to catch every word but somehow don’t hear the number of people. He continues, “You know what the payout structure has to be. You have five minutes to press one of the two buttons on the right armrest. The blue one is defection, the red one is cooperation. Oh, and you can’t communicate.” Screens immediately dropped around each chair so all you can see is beige canvas. “Have fun!” he calls as his footsteps get further away.
What do you do?
Well, you defect, obviously. To the best of your knowledge, it’s not iterated and the results are anonymous, so you always defect. If any moron is stupid enough to cooperate, you get something, but if not, you get the best possible outcome under any circumstance.
Except, everyone knows that. Everyone around the table has exactly the same information, and knows how the prisoner’s dilemma works. So everyone will defect, and that’s fine. But if you can trust that everyone is in fact following the same thought pattern as you, then if you cooperate, that’s evidence that the rest will, too, and that’s a better outcome than everyone defecting. But if everyone else cooperates, you should definitely defect, which is what the rest of them will do, too. Fuck.
What do you do?
You defect, you idiot.
Or do you?