Prisoner’s Dilemma Contest: What’s the One Question You’d Ask If …

I’ve been reading through some economics literature on fairness, altruism, and the like — much of it centered on game-playing that is meant to represent how we make decisions in the real world.

One common early game was an adaptation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia (excerpted from this book, I think), is a description of the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies (defects) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

There are a lot of different ways for researchers to have subjects play this game, and there are a lot of different versions of the game as well.

Pretend for a minute that you have done something to put yourself in jeopardy and are facing a real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma. Now pretend additionally that you get to choose your partner in the dilemma. There are three people to choose from. You cannot see or talk directly to the three people, but you are allowed to ask one question of each of the three people to help make your decision.

What is the one question you’d ask?

We’ll select the best answer and give that person a piece of Freakonomics schwag.

Oren Nimelman

"Excluding myself, what criminals do you associate with?"

The risks and rewards were confined to the construct of the dilemma as written, then the safe option would be to roll over and testify against my accomplice.

Having the opportunity to know something about him, however, changes the game. The variable are no longer, "What are my partner's incentives and disincentives," but rather "what course of action is my partner most likely to take?"

The incentive to refuse to testify against me, by itself, is a weak one when faced with the prospect of a much larger punishment for it. However, there are other incentives at play.

If the answer to my question involves an association with an organized crime syndicate, then the safe solution for my partner in crime is to keep silent and hope that I do the same. Even if I don't, a jail term may still be preferable to the alternative. He may face a strong social incentive to remain loyal to a sort of "honour amongst thieves," for fear of ostracision or retribution upon his release from prison. With this taken into account, it is in his best interests to keep his mouth shut.

If, however, he is a petty criminal, with no concrete bonds to a greater community of like-minded people, his best interests would lie in testifying against me. He would have no idea what course of action I would take, but it would make more sense to hedge his bets in confessing. The opportunity to benefit from a 6-month or five year sentence would outweigh the risk of serving ten years in Folsom in he kept quiet while I sang like a canary.


Ben Hoffman

Think quick: me or we?


What do you think I will do?


Did you know my Uncle had a cough like that and he only lived for another 7 months.

Kaiser Soza

Did you know that I really am Kaiser Soza?


"how much do you give me today, if I give you $100 000 cash in seven month ?"

Jonathan Bensamoun

I would say : "Listen, neither you or me are stupid enough to not try to betray the other. So I'm telling you taht I am going to betray you. I don't care to spend 5 years in jail but don't want to spend 10. So you should betray me if you don't want to spend 10 years in Jail. Are you ok with that ?"

No perfect solution so the best I can find is to try to predict the answer of my opponent. I'm pretty confident that if someone answers "yes" here, then he is going to betray you. At least it garantees you to cut by half your time. Risk free.


I would pull out the victim card so that the blame and punishment is placed upon society in general. The courts would dismiss my case, or at worst, it would be sent to a Federal Appeals Court in California where it would be over-turned and the laws re-written from a judicial bench. Then I would do the talk show circuit where I would have praise and commendations toss upon me for overcome my environment and becoming a productive member of society. (Which would be confusing since I have not doing anything productive in my life)


Would you like to work together (criminally) in the future?

Hopefully one of the three is a career criminal, who wants to continue working with you in the future. If one of the other prisoners sees a benefit in future work with you, he would probably be willing to take a short term loss (6 months in prison) for a long term gain (successful criminal career with you).

Erin K.

People love to help out when others are in crisis, so I would try to find the person who is most likely to see his sacrifice of 6 months of freedom as a good deed. I would definitely cry while talking to the three so as to raise their pity level. Since past performance is a strong indicator of future performance, I would ask each person (between sobs) to tell me the last time they made a sacrifice for a complete stranger.


Where have you been all this time Elvis?


Would you do me the honor of being my best man at my wedding?


Would you do me the honor of being my maid of honor at my wedding?


What is the worst thing you've ever done to another person?

The idea of course being to find someone that couldn't bare the thought of being responsible for another man being in prison for ten years.


If you turn me in, will you take care of my family for the coming 10 years?


My question would be "Do you ALSO know what Prisoners Dilemma is?"

Mario P

"Do you understand the socially-optimal solution to the prisoners' dilemma?"

James D. Miller

If you found a wallet containing $1,000 and the owner's address, would you return the money?




How does free medical sound to you?


You know I'll kill your mama slowly if you turn me in, right?