The Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Postscript

I will provide an overview of my next class session in Advanced Topics in Law (Class #5), which will be devoted to the trolley problem, in the next day or two. Today, however, I would like to say one more thing about Class #4, which was about the prisoner’s dilemma and strategic behavior generally. One of the things we discussed during that class was whether the famous “Ignore the Blonde” scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind is a prisoner’s dilemma or not. (See the film clip for yourself, which is posted below.) Many commentators have explained why that scene does not, in fact, depict a prisoner’s dilemma; see, for example, this analysis of the scene by Presh Talwalkar or this essay by James R. Rogers. Putting aside the fact that the blonde in that scene is not really all that hot, and also putting aside the fact that this scene is more sexist than sexy, why is this question worth discussing? Among other things, one reason this question is important is because it invites us to apply game theory to a real life strategic situation. (Note to my readers: a strategic situation is simply any situation in which the outcome depends upon the actions of two or more persons.)

Broadly speaking, the movie scene below definitely depicts a strategic situation, but whether it constitutes a prisoner’s dilemma or not will depend on three variables: the choices available to the players (i.e. whether to cooperate or defect), the “payoffs” or utility generated by these choices, and the rankings of these payoffs or the “payoff structure” of the game. I won’t delve any further into the details of these three variables here; instead, it suffices to say that one major weakness with this scene–from a purely game theory or amoral perspective–is that the John Nash character (played by Russell Crowe) does not even attempt to model the strategy sets of the girls or assign payoffs to them!

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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