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.

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  1. Christopher says:

    “How many times have you been to prison before?”

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  2. Block says:

    What is your opportunity cost of going to jail?

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  3. Andrew says:

    “What do you think about economists?”

    Go with the person with the most negative attitude towards them.

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  4. Greg says:

    Where do you want to go out for dinner six months from now?

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  5. Mike says:

    Are you a behavioral economist?

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  6. John says:


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  7. Darshanand says:

    What would Jesus do?

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  8. BZ says:

    Are you aware of the optimal outcome in Prisoner’s Dilemma?

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