The prisoners’ dilemma describes many of life’s situations, and it shows that cooperation can be difficult to maintain, even when cooperation would make both players in the game better off. Clearly, this lack of cooperation is a problem for those involved in these situations. But is lack of cooperation a problem from the standpoint of society as a whole? The answer depends on the circumstances.

In some cases, the non cooperative equilibrium is bad for society as well as the players. In the arms-race game in Figure 4, both the United States and the Soviet Union end up at risk. In the common-resources game in Figure 5, the extra wells dug by Chevron and Exxon are pure waste. In both cases, society would be better off if the two players could reach the cooperative outcome.

Figure 5 A Common-Resources Game

Similarly, consider the case of the police questioning two suspects. Lack of cooperation between the suspects is desirable, for it allows the police to convict more criminals. The prisoners’ dilemma is a dilemma for the prisoners, but it can be a boon to everyone else.

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