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In My Words:  'Prisoner’s Dilemma' could offer future shutdown solution

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Biology Dave Gammon notes that a game theory commonly applied to animal behavior could offer insight into how to end government shutdowns. The column was published by The Times-News of Burlington and The Post & Courier of Charleston, S.C.

By Dave Gammon

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history caused us all to wonder why politicians cannot get along.

Animal behavior scientists like me know a concept — the “Prisoner’s Dilemma — that explains the recent behavior of the “animals” running our government. This concept not only explains why shutdowns occur, but also provides a framework for understanding solutions, such as “tit-for-tat” behavior, unselfish mediation, and changing what payoffs result from a willingness to compromise.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology
Game theory models like the Prisoner’s Dilemma have proven useful in understanding strategic interactions within animal behavior, economics, artificial intelligence technology, environmental policy and even sports.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, two players are locked into a struggle over resources. If they cooperate, they each win slightly. If both defect – in other words, both choose to not cooperate —  then they each lose slightly. But if only one player opts to cooperate, the defector wins big at the expense of the cooperator. It is called a dilemma because although mutual cooperation represents the optimal solution for the group, the optimal solution for an individual is always to defect.

Let’s apply the Prisoner’s Dilemma to two players named Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. Both took hard-line moral stances in opposition to each other. Each resided within a well-insulated partisan silo that punished any willingness to compromise. Progressive politicians would have skewered Speaker Pelosi if she had caved to the enemy. Some conservative talk show hosts like Ann Coulter did skewer President Trump for caving to the enemy.

Game theorist Robert Axelrod wanted to see which strategy thrives best when facing repeated Prisoner’s Dilemmas. He invited colleagues to submit hundreds of strategy algorithms and then staged a computerized tournament. The winning strategy — “tit-for-tat” — was surprisingly simple. It consistently performed well, though it never dominated an opponent. “Tit-for-tat” succeeded because it began nice, retaliated whenever necessary, but also forgave quickly.

In contrast, the strategies of Trump and Pelosi through most of January more closely mirrored the “always defect” strategy.

Simulations show that “tit-for-tat” works well only when the game is played repeatedly, which allows players to develop relationships of trust. This was the first major confrontation between Speaker Pelosi and President Trump. It is doubtful they will face several government shutdowns. For the good of humanity, let’s hope they do not.

Another way to break the logjam of a Prisoner’s Dilemma is for an unselfish mediator to intervene. This mediator must gain the trust of each player and provide leverage that motivates cooperation. Shutdown leverage might have come from highlighting the myriad ways in which the problem was more complex than “wall” vs. “no wall.” The suffering of 800,000 unpaid federal workers was worth noting, as was the way our nation appeared weak and dysfunctional in the eyes of China, Russiaand other countries.

Mediators for future showdowns between Pelosi and Trump might come from rogue members of Trump’s inner circle, from members of the bipartisan “Problem-Solvers Caucus” of the U.S. House of Representatives, or perhaps a Senate leader. Given the hyperpartisan stew called Washington D.C., this mediator would have to be one heck of a statesman.

A final way to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to change the relative payoffs encountered when players choose whether to cooperate. Payoffs to politicians change dramatically when constituents choose to reward cooperation rather than punish those who practice it.

Regular citizens play a key role here. Think what would happen if voters begged their Democratic and Republican lawmakers to cooperate and punished them at the polls when they treated opponents as enemies rather than partners.

Unfortunately, the electorate is getting just as divided as our government. A 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans hold a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, and 55 percent of Democrats hold a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. Just 25 years ago both percentages hovered around 20 percent.

We are moving toward a time in which the only thing uniting the United States is the way in which we mutually distrust one another.

January’s shutdown has ended, but the possibility of another shutdown in mid-February looms large. The Prisoner’s Dilemma continues.Hopefully we will find the moral courage to behave smarter than animals.