Stoppard and the Prisoner's Dilemma

By Shannon Stockwell and Elspeth Sweatman 

What do you get when you cross game theory with neurobiology? Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, which runs at The Geary Theater from October 19 to November 13.

In this play, Stoppard is particularly interested in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game theory scenario invented by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950.

Let’s say John and Stacy both get arrested for the same crime. The sheriff goes to John and Stacy separately and offers them a chance to evade jail time if they betray their partner, while ensuring that John and Stacy cannot communicate with each other before making their decisions. Here are the possible results of that deal:

Diagram of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Courtesy of A.C.T. Marketing Team.

1. If John betrays Stacy and says that she committed the crime, but Stacy stays silent, then John will get no time in prison, while Stacy will get three years.

2. If Stacy betrays John and says that he committed the crime, but John stays silent, then Stacy will get no time in prison, while John will get three years.

3. If they both betray the other, then they’ll each get two years in prison.

4. If they both remain silent, then they’ll both get one year in prison.

Mathematically, the Prisoner’s Dilemma proves that, if you are put into this situation, you’ll personally have a better outcome if you always decide to betray your partner. However, it does not account for the altruistic response (as displayed by Hilary in The Hard Problem) of sacrificing yourself for your partner.

To play the Prisoner’s Dilemma yourself, head down to The Exploratorium. On Thursday, October 13, Stoppard and Perloff will also be in conversation with Exploratorium Executive Associate Director Robert Semper.

For tickets to the Exploratorium event on Thursday, October 13, click here.

To purchase tickets for A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem—running October 19 through November 13—click here. For more on the Prisoner's Dilemma, the hard problem, and Stoppard's decades-long relationship with A.C.T., purchase Words on Plays.

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