Game Theory, Relationships, and the “If They Cared” Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma has long annoyed me for assuming the prosecutor is actually going to be fair or tell the truth. I think the dilemma would be more realistic with Ken Kratz as the prosecutor, albeit the game theory elements would be eviscerated.

However, if we apply the dilemma to different examples, bastardizing it to some extent, it can be more realistic. Generally, the dilemma is evident in situations where working together would benefit both parties, but if only one moves to work together (e.g., “extending the olive branch”), he or she will suffer. If trust can be established, then the risk of nonreciprocation can be minimized (mutually assured cooperation, which is evidently a term I just made up). Then, both parties can benefit. These benefits are not necessarily limited to one instance—they may continue on an ongoing basis in business, academic, or personal relationships.

Examples of the prisoner’s dilemma in business relationships are obvious. Firms or even two departments within the same firm might refuse to share information, resulting in needless duplicated work for both parties, because they cannot be assured of reciprocation. If one party shares information yet does not receive anything back, the sharing party may be in a worse position than had they shared nothing at all (similar to counterparty risk). Huge corporations are built on mediating counterparty risk (e.g., eBay, or practically any corporation that acts as a middleman).

It may be less obvious that this bulwark of game theory can be applied to interpersonal relationships, including romantic relationships. The “if they cared” dilemma is the situation where two courting individuals refuse to text each other (or take some other action) because if the other person cared, he or she would already have done so. Ignoring the shakiness of this logic, we can see that if both individuals subscribe to this perspective, it can easily be the death knell for the courtship. If both assume the other party should take an action first, then neither may act and both may chalk it up to people being assholes in general, rather than recognizing the dilemma that exists if both parties subscribe to “if they cared” logic.

Obviously, one party needs to send a loving text message to the other, yet receiving a response to such a text message does not allow the “if they cared” hypothesis to be tested. Attempting to determine whether another person cares based on that person spontaneously texting is completely short-circuited by prompting them with a text message. If you text first, you cannot tell whether they cared or not!

However, if the other person is thinking the same thing about you, then you both will never text again. Agentic contact, that is, contact that is deliberately initiated via one’s personal agency, is impossible to tease out if you happen to re-ignite the courtship by texting first or bumping into each other in-person. While the cost of texting first can be characterized in terms of losing face or appearing desperate, I contend this is a trivial issue—the real cost is in losing the ability to test for agentic contact (as a proxy for actual caring).

“If they cared, they would do X” is fairly bad logic. However, it is surprisingly common, and represents a dilemma by which many people feel rebuffed and become jaded. Inherently, the prisoner’s dilemma and “if they cared” dilemma are both starkly opposed to the zero-sum game model. If we were to gamify dating, if both individuals care, both are losing points by not texting. Each thinks the other should demonstrate caring by texting first. However, both could gain points by texting, if they had mutually assured cooperation (e.g., could know the other individual cares). If not, the big risk is they are being misled, unable to ascertain the true level of commitment of the other party due to their inability to refrain from contact. While pedantic to modern Westerners, the implications for human evolutionary biology are engrossing.

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