Prisoners Dilemma and a lesson from my Father

Prisoners Dilemma is a well-known problem used in game theory popularised by Canadian Mathematician Albert Tucker.

It is a game involving two Prisoners, say A and B, facing two choices — either confess or remain silent. What one chooses decides the fate of the other person as well. The challenge is that none of them know what the other person will choose.

Let me give a simple example. A and B are classmates. A makes a mistake which B pardons. Whenever “B” commits a similar mistake in the future, he would expect “A” to condone his mistake. A can either choose to pardon or punish. If A chose to punish, they get into a loop where B will react by punishing A the next time, and this trend will continue. However, if A reciprocates by pardoning B, it cancels out B’s action and they can choose to act either way in the future.

In a real-life situation, we have a series of events interlinked. For example, when you extend help to someone, you expect them to reciprocate in kind in the future. As long as both help each other, this loop that Psychologists call “reciprocal altruism”, continues in operation. Whenever one of them denies extending help, this loop gets terminated. According to William Donald Hamilton, a British evolutionary biologist, this is just reciprocity. Altruism, in his opinion, is where you are not expecting the fruits of your action to benefit you but to benefit society at large.

This brings me to the lesson that I learned from my father in how he handled Govind uncle. (Uncle is a common term used to call everyone above 30 as a mark of respect).
Whenever Govind uncle visit our house, my mother would get upset.

“Here comes the Goovinnnd Uncle. Ah! I know, he wants something. Why else he will come here? ”.

My mother’s animosity towards this man had a strong reason.
Both my father and Govind uncle were freelancers. Whenever my father has landed a job and if Govind uncle does not have any job at hand, my father would give him a portion of the work and share his remuneration. However, the reverse was not true. There were days when my father would not have any job to do but Govind uncle had jobs at his hand. Govind uncle never reciprocated.

My mother would lament, “What is the need for you to help someone who is not even bothered to help you back?”. I thought she had a valid point.
So, I asked my father, “Dad, I feel MOM is right. Why do you need to help him when he is not going to help you back anyways?”.

With an unruffled smile, he said, “Sundar, if we have to help someone expecting them to reciprocate in the future, then it becomes business. When someone requires help and you can afford to help, you have to help. You don’t contemplate whether they helped you in the past or will they help you in the future.

I still remember the calmness on his face when he uttered those words.

This can be termed as altruism . Altruism is “disinterested and selfless concern for others”. The word “disinterested” is different from “uninterested”. When you are uninterested, you are not concerned. But when you are disinterested, you are not influenced by the considerations of personal advantage.

My father is no more but this lesson still stays with me. Once in a while, I follow his advice in extending help to others without expecting anything in return.

When you are altruistic in your approach, you go above reciprocity. People may reciprocate to your good deeds, which many people do on many occasions, but their actions need not alter your position.

Can someone be altruistic in every situation? Did my father remain altruistic in every situation in his life? I don’t know. But, I guess he tried.

We are all Prisoners of life situations and filled with Dilemmas in our actions. One possible solution is to detach oneself from the fruit of the action and do your duty keeping the best interest of everyone around. We can all try to be altruistic, if not every time, most of the time.

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