The concept of the prisoner’s dilemma refers to difficult choices that people have to make. One choice seems to be based in logical and rationality, while the others apparently rely on an emotionally based evaluation of the outcome. When all the choices are analyzed from the perspectives of both people involved, it often turns out that the logically based outcome has emotional qualities that make it less than optimal. Looking at the other choices, there are also compelling rational reasons to select them.
The concept takes its name from a hypothetical situation in which two people have been charged with the same crime. Securing a conviction will rely on the testimony of one or both individuals. Both of them are offered the same deal: receive a reduced sentence for betraying the other one. Although accepting a reduced sentence seems logical, and not betraying a comrade seems emotional, the situation is more complex. For example, if other prisoners learn of the first person’s betrayal, that person might be in danger of retribution.
In current events in the United States, an example can be found in Congress, which in early 2021 is debating the amount and contents of an economic stimulus plan that will provide assistance for Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls conducted in February 2021 indicate that at least three-quarters of Americans polled strongly favor President Biden’s plan, which will provide substantial financial assistance. Support is bipartisan, including a majority of self-identified Republicans. It might seem logical that representatives in districts where support is high would likewise support passage. However, support and opposition in Congress is split almost completely along partisan lines. Other reasons than constituent support are also strong motivators for legislator’s positions, including needing their fellow party members’ support on other upcoming matters and financial dependence on the national party for re-election campaigns.