Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The prisoner's dilemma and addiction

I just read this article on Cracked called "5 Mind-Blowing Academic Theories as Taught by Classic Movies" It blew. my. mind. It's about some of the philosophical theories you learned in your 1010 class as they relate to many of the archetypal stories form the beginning of time.

However, something found within the section on the Prisoner's Dilemma caught my interest.

For those of you (myself included) who have no idea what I'm talking about, the Prisoner's Dilemma is modeled like this in the article: You are the king of America. You and all of the other kings from around the world group together in a summit to address carbon emissions and every king, you included, agree to completely remove producers of carbon emissions from your nation even though it will mean huge economical and social challenges.

In this model, there are a few possibilities. The first is that you all do what you say and after a few years, a new normal is established, pollution is reduced and your economies stabilize. The second is that you do not do what you say, but everyone else does. You are at a great economical advantage and the net pollution is down because everyone else did what they said they would. The third is that you eliminate polluters, but no one else does. You are now at an economic advantage and since the rest of the world is still polluting, the earth isn't much better off. And the fourth is that no one eliminates polluters. Economically and ecologically, you find yourself in a wash.

The challenge behind such a dilemma is that of trust. If every king trusted the other completely, you would all make the same sacrifices for the same goal. However, if one king, out of either greed or mistrust of the others, decided to enjoy the economical advantages of those polluters, then all the other kings would do the same and you'd be back to square one.

The mind-blowing thing about this theory is the way it relates to addiction. For someone who is addicted, he finds himself in a prisoner's dilemma where the other king is his future self. The idea is this: If you agree with your future self to continue abstaining from your substance of choice, then in theory you will live the rest of your life sober.  However, if you abstain but your future self relapses, then you are left discouraged and have to start over.  If you mistrust your future self and his capability to abstain, then you are more likely to relapse now as well.  And if you trust your future self to abstain, but leave that job to him, then you will relapse, intending to get clean tomorrow. And then, when tomorrow comes, you again have tomorrow's future self to trust with abstaining and you'll relapse again, thus building a life of relapses all hinged on the abstinence of a future self that never actually exists.

This is kind of a compelling application of the philosophy in many ways. The first that jumped to my mind is that of trust. You have to trust yourself to continue to make good choices. If you doubt your future, then it is way too easy to relapse.

The next is that of the eternal tomorrow. I actually had this thought a few hours ago, before I even realized its application to the dilemma. The thing I came up with was this: If the last time wasn't your last time, then neither will the next time.  As you start to indulge, it's tempting to say, "This is the last time," but that justification will just pop up the next time you're jonesing.  The last time you did it really needs to have been the last time. Easier said than done.

I have no idea if any of that makes sense. It's kind of mind-bottling [sic].  Comments?


  1. I am familiar with the prisoner's dilema. It gets its name from two prisoners. If one rats the other out, the rat gets off scott free (no offense, my Scotish friends) and the other gets the death penalty. If both rat the other out, they both get the death penalty. But if both keep silent, they just get a prison sentences. You get the idea.

    I really like your using it with present vs. future self in an adiction. I think it's very apt at describing the way an addiction can be seen from the inside. However, it can get discouraging for those who don't trust their future selves. I know I can't keep this up forever, so why try now?

    But eventually, someone can keep it up forever, but they've got to start trying now.

  2. Interesting article! I like the introduction:

    "So while you may think that you're just watching an entertaining movie, you might be pondering big, heavy ideas that have been vexing humanity's deepest thinkers for millennia. For instance ..."

    I think it's funny because the writer is probably quite secular (I think? Maybe not), but that is exactly what we do with religion, too.

  3. I read this article the other day somebody had posted it on Facebook. I've been dinning out on the theories ever since. I hadn't made the connections you did. But it does all make sense. Well mostly


Be nice, mmmmkay? I allow anonymous comments, but not anonymous (or even attributed) douchebaggery. The Gay Mormon Pioneer's tolerance for hate and venom are incredibly low, but his love of communication and debate are high, so have an opinion, but be kind and gentle when you share it.

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...