The Puzzle of the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Anatol Rapoport was a Russian-American mathematician and psychologist who was born on May 22, 1911.  He is remembered for his many contributions to game theory, including his work on a famous puzzler known as the “Prisoner’s dilemma.”

The Prisoner’s dilemma goes something like this.  Two criminals, Adam and Ben, are arrested and separated from each other.  Separately, they are each made an offer by the police:

  • If Adam and Ben both remain silent, they each get only one year in prison.
  • If Adam betrays Ben, Adam goes free and Ben gets 20 years in prison.
  • Similarly, if Ben betrays Adam, Ben goes free and Adam gets 20 years in prison.
  • But if Adam and Ben both betray each other, they each get 10 years in prison.

Adam and Ben must each decide what to do without consulting the other.  The dilemma is that if they could collaborate and both remain silent, they would each get a lesser sentence.  In the absence of collaboration, they are each better off betraying the other.  Yet if they both do so, they will get a worse outcome.

What is the best course of action?

Rapoport wrote a small program that played iterative games of the Prisoner’s dilemma.  First, Adam cooperates with Ben.  In subsequent games, Adam does exactly what Ben just did in the previous game.  Over time, the program ends up rewarding cooperative behavior and punishing selfish behavior.

With this program, Rapoport demonstrated that collaboration is ultimately the better course of action.  He argued that this lesson can be applied in work and life as well as in games.

At Agilent, we have a long-standing culture based on collaboration that is unique in the industry.  We believe that we achieve our best results when we work together with our customers and with each other.  This is reflected in our company’s brand identity.

Agilent’s enterprise services organization, Agilent CrossLab, has a customer brand promise of “From insight to outcome.”  As the strategic partner of choice, we are your expert advisors, from lab instrument services and supplies to laboratory operations and enterprise strategy.

And Agilent’s pathology solutions company, Dako, has a customer brand promise of “Trusted answers.  Together.”


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