Friday, January 7, 2011

The Prisoner's Dilemma and My Aha Moment

Over break, I was working out and catching up on my podcasts, listening to my favorite, Radiolab from NPR.  There was a recent episode called, The Good Show.  The entire focus was on behavior that was nice, good, pleasant and altruistic.  Here is the description from Radiolab's site.
In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?
The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today's plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness ... or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?
So the episode opens with a brief interview with Richard Dawkins, then moves on to three case studies into every-day people who did incredibly heroic, altruistic things. 

Part 3 deals with the Prisoner's Dilemma, which, to be honest, after all the readings on psychology I've ever done has always remained a mystery to me--and that is why I am writing this entry.  I had my "A-ha"moment regarding the prisoner's dilemma and why it is an important concept.  The podcast describes the process and how it works so much more effectively than I could, so if you want to, skip to minute 40 of the podcast.  The storytelling contains the context in which the research took place, the computer programs that were used to determined the most successful strategy and more.  If you love radio, you must listen to this.

The last part of the podcast describes the application of the principles in everyday life--in fact, when the German and British soldiers had the breakfast and Christmas truce in World War I.  Fascinating.

posted by Chuck Schallhorn


mbritt said...

Thanks for letting us know about this episode of RadioLab Chuck. I could never quite get that prisoner's dilemma either.

Oregoncornhusker said...

Interesting b/c I just used this very segment in my classroom last week. After listening to the theoretical (the two prisoners) and the example (Christmas Truce), the students brainstormed real-life examples of the PD.

My anticipatory set was having students actually do the PD for real money. There are many ways to set this up, but I did it by going through ten rounds where they each decide to cooperate or not. Depending on their choices, the test students accumulate points. Players with enough points at the end get real money. Needless to say, the PD played out as expected, the students acted in their self interest, and ultimately no one won. It was great!

Mrs. d'Entremont said...

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