Friday, March 20, 2015

Cynicism, Stoicism, and "The Prisoner's Dilemma" (Sort of) [25 February 2014]

            It was undoubtedly part of some program under the over-arching theory my friend Dan Prickett used to call "Cliché of the Month Management"; anyway, some time more or less in the late 1970s or early 1980's, I found myself in a faculty workshop where we played a very unscientific variation on the psychology-experiment/game-theory game, "The Prisoner's Dilemma."

            In our exercise, participants were paired off — I found myself (possibly significantly) with a guy from the Miami University business school — and told that we'd both been arrested and were held in the same cell and allowed to talk until we were figuratively separated and each told we'd better cooperate and testify against the other. If neither of the pair "defected" and cooperated with the arresting authorities, we'd both go free for lack of evidence. If Prisoner 1 defected and agreed to testify against Prisoner 2, he would go to jail for a brief time, and Prisoner 2 would be sentenced to prison for a significant hard time; and, necessarily, vice-versa. If both defected, both would go to jail for a medium-length sentence.

            The details in sentencing differed from the classical "Prisoner's Dilemma" (or "Prisoners' Dilemma"), and I may misremember the variation, although I'm sure that we played the "iterative" form — where we played a number of rounds — and had the tweak that the two prisoners could negotiate between "interrogations."

            When our workshop group was asked for questions, I asked the Game Masters to tell us the specifics of the charges. They refused. I asked if we'd be allowed to consult a lawyer. No. How long might we be held without formal charges? They wouldn't say. Were we actually guilty of the crime — or did the authorities at least think we were? No comment.

            We started the game, and I refused to defect, and my partner defected.

            When we talked over the round, I noted my questions of the Game Masters and that their answers indicated that we were obviously in some sort of Kafkaesque situation and should be faithful to one another since we obviously couldn't trust the authorities.

            Next round, he betrayed me.

            In our conversation following that round, I explained that if he trusted the authorities enough to cooperate, then he should trust them to free us if we both remained silent; hence it would be in his best interest to stay loyal.

            And he defected again.

            And again, and again, for all the iterations we played before getting on to whatever the hell the lesson was for college teachers, scientists, and scholars in late-20th-century southwest Ohio.

            Now if I had had my wits about me and had watched more old prison movies as a kid, I would have stood up after the third round or so, and interrupted the game by calling out in a controlled but loud voice, "Hey, screws! Send over a medic. My cellmate just accidentally fell on a shank fifteen times!" (and let the other participants in the exercise laugh and tell the Game Masters what happens in prisons to narks, ratfinks, stool pigeons, or whatever slang was appropriate for their generation ["nark," surprisingly, goes back to at least 1859 or 1860, but was making a comeback].)

            I didn't have my wits about me and was prudent enough to keep quiet in the, let's say, "directed discussion" that followed the exercise. I'd already pissed off my seniors and betters by asking those questions outside the Game.

            Writing now, with the advantage of hindsight and absolutely nothing to lose, I'll tell why I didn't defect.

            It is not because I'm a nice person or because I liked the ratfucking nark — in the Game — from the business school.

            My most respectable reason is that among the traditions I grew up in there was a touch of the capital "C" Cynic and the Stoic (but without the masochistic bullshit of the small "s" kind of "stoicism" that was classically associated with the macho-militaristic, slave-exploiting, boy-exploiting noble-folk of Sparta). I believed with the Cynics that "Virtue is its own reward," 'cause it ain't reliably gonna get any other; and I respected the idea of the Stoics that the only thing over which human beings have real, significant control over is our own integrity.

            In a Kafkaesque trap in a holding cell under some sort of weird tyranny, about all one has is one's integrity, and this one was going to hold onto mine and not have my behavior controlled by the decisions of, say, some small-c cynical asshole from the B-school who'd betray me and probably his mother, at least in a game.

            Okay, maybe that position isn't all that respectable, ethics-wise, but it's probably more respectable than my willingness to be stubborn when I had nothing serious to lose: I was naïve enough to be confident I was going to get promoted because I deserved it, even if I disrupted some pet project workshop project of some administrator showing, "Hey, I read a book!" (for a complementary theory of management from Dan Prickett).
            Cheating a good deal and applying common sense and real-world experience to the world of the Prisoner's Dilemma Game — I wasn't going to trust the in-Game authorities, ca. 1980 and certainly wouldn't trust them now, not when a lawyer friend has pointed out that real-world cops and prosecutors feel free to lie to suspects.

            And ca. 1980 I certainly wouldn't have trusted the social psychologists who put together such games. This was before strong rules on "The Ethical Treatment of Subjects," and lying by experimenting psychologists et al. was accepted and habitual.

            So I was something of an outlier, as we say nowadays, for "The Prisoner's Dilemma" of three decades and more ago, and I wish I'd pushed the point then and more forcefully since then.
            Stoicism and Cynicism are pretty sterile in themselves, but there is much to be said for "inner-direction," or pure cussedness, as part of one's repertoire, and there's much to be said, in outrageous situations — especially when they're just part of a game — for maintaining integrity.

            Along with Hamlet himself, Shakespeare' Polonius is a good example of a man of much schooling who doesn't think all that well. "[T]o thine own self be true, / And it must follow […] / Thou canst not then be false to any man" is a glaring non sequitur: If you're truly a scoundrel being true to yourself requires being false to all sorts of people. Still, the deeper joke both in the play itself and more generally is that old fart Polonius is correct: "This above all: to thine own self be true" is good advice to his son Laertes and usually good advice, period.

            Job standing up to a God grown vicious toward him affirms, "Till I die I will not put away my integrity from me." The rest of us wimps can at least pretend to integrity in a game — or realize that central to real-world freedom is occasionally breaking out of the mandated games and setting up new rules. 

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