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The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Fighting a Virus

The virus doesn't care about your gym, or your school, or your job, or your paycheck. It's a virus. We are left with the classic prisoner's dilemma. We can cooperate, and flatten the curve, so that the virus doesn't overwhelm our health care capabilities. Or we can betray each other and watch the worst outcome play out before our eyes.

Do you know what the “prisoner’s dilemma” is? In short, it’s a game theory involving cooperation and rational people doing the wrong thing.

Here’s how it goes: two prisoners are separated in their own rooms and cannot communicate. They are offered a deal to rat out the other prisoner, and if the other prisoner stays silent, they go free. If they both rat each other out, they both serve two years. If they both stay silent, they each serve one year.

Pretty simple. You’d think they’d both stay silent, do their year, and let bygones be bygones. But that almost never happens, because it’s not the rational choice to obtain the best outcome. The rational choice is to rat out and assume the other guy will be silent, which means they both rat each other out and end up with the worst outcome.

I remember playing a similar game in a college class where it wasn’t prisoners, it was divisions in a company, and we could cooperate and get modest bonuses, or betray each other and one gets a big bonus with nothing for others. You could guess how that turned out, and how frustrating it was.

Coronavirus Dilemma

We are in a similar dilemma on Coronavirus. The facts are the facts here. The virus cannot speak, negotiate, or surrender. It’s a virus, and its properties are fairly set (unless it mutates, but we won’t go there). If we do nothing, with an R0 (R-Naught) of around 2.3-2.8, it will continue to exponentially increase until in a few weeks, those turning up with symptoms will overwhelm our hospitals. We will be like parts of Italy.

At this point, we have a choice. We can cooperate and take draconian measures for social distancing, which has its own punishment. We will be home with our kids, no eating out, cancelled trips, no partying, no gym, no visiting. We may have some local shortages if an outbreak hits the area where we live.

Or we can decide everyone else will get the virus, and if we’re young and healthy, we can ride it out. We can be like the young people in Nashville, packing the bars like nothing is wrong. We can be like those who tell the authorities, “you’re not the boss of me” and do whatever they please.

We can be like Mayor Bill de Blasio who tweeted “I live in the regular world” after refusing to shut down NYC gyms. Governor Cuomo corrected him and did it statewide.

The virus doesn’t care about your gym, or your school, or your job, or your paycheck. It’s a virus. We are left with the classic prisoner’s dilemma. We can cooperate, and flatten the curve, so that the virus doesn’t overwhelm our health care capabilities. Or we can betray each other and watch the worst outcome play out before our eyes.

Cooperation will mean at the end we will let bygones be bygones, and the past be the past. We can’t replay “what if” to see what would have happened had we “lived in the regular world.” To us, it will seem like all this was a tempest in a teapot–a massive overreaction, because we cannot know what would have happened if we ratted each other out.

But this game, like the prisoner’s dilemma, is played in the open. We know the rules because we know what this virus does. We know what it will do if we don’t cooperate.

We can watch in horror what is going to happen in Mexico, which is totally ignoring the threat. They are living in “the regular world.” But the virus does not care. It’s a virus.

There is really only one rational choice here, and it’s to cooperate. We don’t get to go free if the other person remains silent, because the virus isn’t playing the game. If half of Americans choose to ignore the warnings and continue life as usual, we will all lose.

We will never really know what we avoided, but we will know that cooperation was the best, and only path in this dilemma.

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