Last blog entry, we looked at the Prisoner’s Dilemma (see entry with the same title): a gaming scenario that has parallels to life’s decision-making and questions our morality and self-interest.

So, when asked in the blog, which did you favour: to cooperate or to betray?

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, if one opts for betrayal, in the hope that the other player cooperates, is this not morally indefensible? If one resolves to cooperate in the belief that your opponent will respond with the same choice, then is this form of good moral thinking not just an subtle strategy of looking after oneself?

In making such decisions, if people were to put themselves in the other person’s shoes then, surely, the choice would be to cooperate. Such a response would be from the heart rather than from the head.

If there is a moral emerging from this, it would be to treat others as I would wish to be treated myself; to act with decency and dignity.

So how often does this sort of scenario manifest? Probably much more often that you imagine!

What follows are two examples which come under the wider umbrella of ‘justice.’

Psychology: In addiction research, it has been pointed out that addiction can be seen as a ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ problem between the present and future selves of the addict. In this case, defecting or betrayal means relapsing.

i) It is easy to see that not to betray (relapse), both today and in the future, is by far the best outcome and that

ii) betrayal (relapse), both today and in the future, is the worst outcome.

iii) The case where one abstains today but relapses in the future is clearly a bad outcome—in some sense the discipline and self-sacrifice involved in abstaining today will have been ‘wasted’ because the future relapse means that the addict is right back where (s)he started and will have to start over (which is quite demoralising, and makes starting over more difficult).

iv) The final case, where one engages in the addictive behaviour today while abstaining ‘tomorrow’ will be familiar to anyone who has struggled with an addiction. The problem here is that there is an obvious benefit to defecting/relapsing ‘today’ but tomorrow one will face the same Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the same obvious benefit will be present then, ultimately leading to an endless string of defections/relapses.

Law: The theoretical conclusion of Prisoner’s Dilemma is one reason why, in many countries, plea bargaining is forbidden. Often, precisely the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario applies: it is in the interest of both suspects to confess and testify against the other prisoner/suspect, even if each is innocent of the alleged crime.

Some of you reading this will have known Lee. For some years, he was a prison officer at HMYOI Hollesley Bay, before ‘escaping’ to work with young people in a personal development capacity. Lee finally succumbed to cancer in March.

Whether you knew Lee or not, I wanted to share something that is probably relevant to all of us.

Lee was not comfortable to be put in a position where he was addressing a large group. However, at our residential seminar back in 2003, he hesitatingly agreed to be a panellist and share something of his story. The topic was ‘Understanding Control, Power and Force.’ Lee’s contribution, that morning, was huge.

In the form of key points, I would like to share with you what came out of that conversation, under five separate headings.


  • Power is generated through respect and must be nurtured.
  • My role is to help others to find their own power. I can't change others but I can help them make changes for themselves.
  • Where appropriate, give people control of a situation through developing their self respect.


  • How I feel reflects onto others. As I do, others will follow. I therefore need to be aware of myself as a positive role model.
  • To witness the trust that another will show can change people's lives.
  • When one's words are the same as one's actions, then one is authentic.


  • There are many facets to every individual. Given the right conditions, hidden aspects of one's character will be revealed that will say more than 1000 words.
  • Power is within. When I am connected to my power, I have self control.
  • Empowerment in a prison system allows individuals to be 'under control' but not 'controlled' - there is still room for personal expression and uniqueness.


  • An indicator of power or control is to ask myself.
  • ‘How does this leave me feeling?' Drained or empowered?
  • What is my contribution to any situation? What is my level of responsibility? My input can make a situation difficult or dangerous or it can make it easy and safe.


  • We see the changes that we feel others need to make. However, there needs to be patience or there may be the temptation to do something that causes harm, not good.
  • Something will only work for someone when they are at a point when they are open to something else.
  • Force should always be the last resort and, even then, I should question my motivation each time. There is such a different energy when I control someone from the place of care and protection - a loving intervention - rather than when I control with punishment in mind.
  • When fear becomes the motivation, I lose touch with the desire for care and concern and balance is lost. Our own insecurity often means that we become aggressive and forceful.
  • To do something with love, is a transformative power

I had never heard of the ‘Prisoner's Dilemma’ until recently. In essence, it is a fundamental problem in game theory that demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so.

A classic example of the prisoner's dilemma is presented as follows:

Both you and a colleague are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the two of you, visit both of you to offer the same deal. If you testify for the prosecution against your colleague (gaming term is to defect) and your colleague remains silent (cooperate), you, as the defector, will go free and your silent accomplice receives the full one-year sentence. If you both remain silent, both of you will be sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each of you betrays the other, you will both receive a three-month custodial sentence.

You must both choose to either betray the other or to remain silent. Each of you is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation.

If we assume that each person cares only about minimizing his or her own time in jail, then rational choice would suggest both detainees defect or betray, even though each one's individual reward would be greater if they both cooperated. (If I defect/betray, then I am guaranteed to spend no longer than three months in prison.)

The classical prisoner's dilemma can be summarized thus


Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates)

Prisoner B confesses (defects)

Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates)

Each serves 1 month

Prisoner A: 1 year
Prisoner B: goes free

Prisoner A confesses (defects)

Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 1 year

Each serves 3 months


How would you act?

Just over a year ago, when the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising began in Egypt, Barack Obama made a speech in which he said, “We need not be defined by our differences but by the commonality that we share…… Egyptians have inspired us and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence …… In Egypt, it was the moral force of non-violence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”

Everything indicated major change and radical restructuring in the region, through the voice of the people rather than through violence. That was before the resistance from Gadaffi and the ensuing battles within Libya between pro and anti Gadaffi forces.

The situation in Syria is a quantum leap down the road of violence towards genocide! The desperate situation within that country continues, seemingly little changed: indiscriminate shelling of civilians; bloodshed without cause; suffering and trauma. Sitting here in the UK, it is just impossible for me to conceive what people must be experiencing, what they must be feeling and thinking. The untold sorrow is one thing; the fact that there is no apparent end in sight amplifies the magnitude of this suffering.

I don’t know how people cope! The only thing I can imagine is that a part of them closes down; the reality of their lives takes on an element of unreality, where boundaries to the individual’s thoughts are tightly drawn in. The nearest I can come to imagining how this might be comes from speaking to lifers, in prison. When I have asked them how they deal with the thought of being incarcerated for another, say, 20 years, and perhaps for not being with their children as they grow up, they respond by saying, “You live from day to day. You can’t allow yourself to think too much or you would tear yourself apart.”

Can you imagine? …. Think about it? …. Could you put yourself in the shoes of a Syrian mother or father in Homs, right now?

This week, a UN backed peace plan has been endorsed by all the members of the UN Security Council. Yet this still remains a long way from resolution as government forces, at the same time as the plan was being endorsed, continue to shell the civilian population. The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the year-long uprising in Syria, while tens of thousands of people have fled their homes.

We have to find ways to address this carnage; to tap in to all means available!