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Stronger together – How to cooperate and create harmonious societies

The prisoner’s dilemma, a thought experiment of game theory, can explain why cooperation as a society is desirable but difficult – and how we can get there anyway. It shows why societies are inherently uncooperative and which conditions governments must provide to create harmonious societies.

Why we sometimes refuse to cooperate

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the classic thought experiments from game theory. It explains why we often refuse to cooperate in situations where all involved would benefit from cooperation. Albert W. Tucker, who coined the term “prisoner’s dilemma” presented the idea like this:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison,

If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free, and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa),

If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

Simplified, the prisoner’s dilemma looks like this:

  Prisoner B remains silent Prisoner B accuses prisoner A
Prisoner A remains silent Prisoner A: 1 years jail

Prisoner B: 1 years jail

Prisoner A: 3 years jail

Prisoner B: 0 years jail

Prisoner A accuses prisoner B Prisoner A: 0 years jail

Prisoner B: 3 years jail

Prisoner A: 2 years jail

Prisoner B: 2 years jail

On first sight, it might seem as if the best thing for both prisoners would be to remain silent. By cooperating, they both get a year in prison, but they can avoid more severe punishments. Unfortunately, this is not how things work out. To understand why, put yourself in the shoes of prisoner A.

  • If prisoner B remains silent, prisoner A would be better off accusing them. If B remains silent, A either gets a one-year sentence by remaining silent or they get free by accusing B. A is better off accusing B.
  • If prisoner B accuses prisoner A, prisoner A would be better off accusing them. If B accuses A, A either gets a 3-year sentence by remaining silent or a 2-year sentence by accusing B. A is better off accusing B.

Regardless of what B does, A is always better off if they accuse them. B must draw the same conclusion. Therefore, the logical and most likely outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma is that both prisoners refuse to cooperate and serve two years in jail. If they cooperated, they could achieve a better outcome, but since they are unsure whether the other prisoner will cooperate, too. Experiments with actual people confirm that the prisoner’s dilemma only rarely leads to cooperation.

We frequently find the prisoner’s dilemma in politics. We would all be better off by cooperating with others, but because we are unsure whether other countries and other members of society will also cooperate, we choose the seemingly more secure alternative and refuse cooperation. We hurt ourselves and end up with worse results than if we cooperated. The same applies to our daily lives.

  • Climate change: To effectively combat climate change, all countries would need to cooperate in limiting CO2 Since many countries suspect others will refuse cooperation, they refuse to cooperate, too. We end up with a world that ignores its most serious threat.
  • Personal struggles: We are often unwilling to sustain difficult behavior if we are unsure that our future selves will be able to follow through on them, too. For example, if an alcoholic suspects that they will relapse anyway, they could reason that they might as well start drinking today. Of course, they would be better off staying away from alcohol now and in the future, but their internal prisoner’s dilemma between their current and future selves could trick them into accepting a worse outcome. Similar self-sabotage happens when we doubt our ability to hold a job, sustain a relationship, or hold our weight.
  • Doping: Athletes would all be better off if they renounced doping. If one of them refuses the cooperation, however, he will steal spotlight, money, and roster spot from an honest player. Therefore, all professional athletes have an incentive to dope. They end up with the same result but hurt their health along the way.

The task of good politics is to motivate people to cooperate despite the difficulties created by the prisoner’s dilemma. One classic hope for achieving cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma is repeating the game. Let’s see what happens under these conditions.

Can repeated interactions motivate cooperation?

Many of us intuitively hope that repeating the prisoner’s dilemma can teach both prisoners to cooperate. Similar to our hope that sharing a society for long enough will teach rivaling political factions to cooperate, we think that both prisoners eventually understand that mutual cooperation can reduce their prison sentence by a year. But would they?

To answer this question, assume that we play the prisoner’s dilemma ten times in a row. What would both players do in round one? Intuitively, we think that they might cooperate now because they want to motivate the other prisoner to cooperate, too. But that’s not how rational people think. Rational people use backward induction – they base their decisions on what they expect the other person to do. In repeated interactions, they start with the last interaction and work their way back. For example, many people would break up with their partners when they realize that they would never agree to marry them. They start at the end of the dating game and reason their way back until they know what to do now.

Both prisoners in a prisoner’s dilemma with ten rounds would do the same thing. They asked themselves what would happen in round ten and then deduct the best way of action in round one. Here’s what this process looks like:

  • In round ten, the game is a normal prisoner’s dilemma. Since this is the last round of the game, there is no sense in hoping that our current actions will affect future behavior. We end up with the same situation where both prisoners benefit from refusing cooperation.
  • If we know that the other prisoner will refuse cooperation in round ten, there is no incentive for us to cooperate in round 9. When we know that the other prisoner will refuse cooperation in the next round, there is no sense in trying to motivate them to cooperate more in this round. We are back to a regular prisoner’s dilemma in which both prisoners refuse cooperation.
  • If we know that the other prisoner will refuse cooperation in round 9, there is no incentive for us to cooperate in round 8.
  • And so on.

Studies proof that repeated prisoner’s dilemmas do not lead to cooperation. Without a guarantee for eventual cooperation from the other party, most people decide to refuse cooperation from the start. To enable cooperation, we need a guarantee that the other side will cooperate, too, or we shoot ourselves in the foot.

This lesson applies to relationships and politics:

When our partners or a group in society refuse to cooperate, we are quick to blame them. However, we often forced them to refuse cooperation by first communicating our unwillingness to cooperate. Based on this indication, they had to refuse cooperation to avoid getting the worst possible outcome – attempting to cooperate while we defect. This decision probably was subconscious, so they are not even to blame for it – if the roles were reversed, we would have done the same thing.

The task of good politics is to provide all members of society with the means to be sure about the others’ cooperation. Only then, they can realistically be expected to cooperate, too. Democracies provide the perfect environment for achieving this goal, but there are many subtle ways of denying people the security of mutual cooperation. When we disenfranchise people – by racial laws, poverty, or by robbing them of their access to society in some other form – they have no reason to expect cooperation from the rest of society. Without this security, they can’t be expected to cooperate, too.

Why destructive ideas motivate us to refuse cooperation

The prisoner’s dilemma teaches us that cooperation in society requires two conditions:

  1. We need a repeated interaction. In a single-round prisoner’s dilemma, there is no incentive to cooperate. For cooperation, we need multiple rounds.
  2. We need the security that others will cooperate with us eventually. When backwards induction teaches us that we future cooperation by others is unlikely, there is no incentive for us to cooperate in the here and now.

Destructive ideas focus on these two points. They motivate people to do horrible things because they force a short-term focus on the prisoner’s dilemma.

  1. Destructive ideas focus us on this single round. Destructive ideas argue that there is an infinitely evil threat that, if left unopposed, will destroy society and everything that is good and just. This worldview focuses us on the current round of the prisoner’s dilemma. If the infinitely evil threat wins, there would be no future rounds. We become uncooperative.
  2. Destructive ideas reduce our hope for future cooperation. Destructive ideas imply that the infinitely evil threat will never Regardless of who they define as their infinitely evil threat – whether it is a group within society or out of it – they argue that their proposed actions are necessary or there might not be another election or the fight might be lost by then. They take away any incentive for us to cooperate.

Combined, both factors destroy any reason for us to cooperate in society. We assume that, regardless of what the other groups do, we would be better off refusing cooperation. Our refusal leads other groups to go through a similar thought process and become uncooperative, too. We end up with a divided society, stuck in an accelerating vicious cycle of less and less cooperation.

How to escape the cycle of non-cooperation

When society is stuck in an escalating cycle of non-cooperation, the worst question we could ask ourselves is who started it. Regardless of our answer, we will only find a scapegoat to use as another reason to refuse cooperation. Similar to a relationship, where it is more important to resolve arguments than detail who started it, constructive societies focus on resolving their differences instead of identifying the person who started them.

Many aspects of this process are cultural and impossible to generalize. They happen on the micro level; governments and other macro-level institutions are powerless to influence them. Nonetheless, governments can provide the environment in which no person is forced to feel excluded. This means two things:

  1. Governments must grant all citizens a right to survival, including social security payments high enough to survive and universal healthcare. Societies that are indifferent to the survival of some of their members force these members to become uncooperative and start the destructive cycle that creates rivaling fractions that fight each other with increasing intensity.
  2. Governments must grant all citizens a right to access to society, including universally available education and equal rights for everyone. If some people are excluded from society, either by law or poverty, they are forced to refuse cooperation and start the destructive cycle.

Societies that adhere to both of these rules have a chance to remain harmonious. Regardless of what happens to an individual member of this society, they know that others will cooperate in keeping them alive and granting them the chance to get an education to work their way back. Maybe even more importantly, they know that their children can use the same tools to create better lives. They know that others cooperate with them and that supporting destructive ideas endangers this valuable cooperation. This strong incentive to cooperate provides a strong foundation for a harmonious society.

Of course, many other factors contribute to a harmonious society, but unless a government grants these two essential rights to everyone, all is lost. The rights to survival and access to society are essential requirements for harmonious societies. Political ideas that require us to violate one of these rights lead to division and endanger society, regardless of how well-intentioned they are. We must start with these two rights, and then build from there.


  1. The prisoner’s dilemma teaches us that cooperation between people requires two conditions: a repeated interaction, and the belief that others will cooperate, too. When two people with conflicting political beliefs meet, the same conditions apply.
  2. Destructive ideas hurt our desire to cooperate because they propose that an infinitely evil threat wants to destroy society. This belief robs us of our hope for mutual cooperation and implies that there will be no future rounds or that they will be meaningless. If the infinitely evil threat wins here and now, all is lost. Consequently, there is no sense in cooperating.
  3. The two most essential prerequisites of a harmonious society are the rights to survival and access to society. Political ideas that can accept these conditions can create constructive outcomes; those ideas that would need to violate them are destructive and endanger society.

Published in Politics