Let’s say you and your friend are arrested by the police. Neither of you have any idea what you did. Maybe it was that hilarious prank you pulled on your teacher two years ago. Either way, now both of you are kept in separate cells, and you have two options:
- Rat on your friend. Accuse him of doing everything. They promise you if you do this you’ll be let off scot free, whilst your friend gets 3 months in prison.
- Flatly deny everything and hope the police can’t charge you. Your lawyer says given the how little evidence the police have, you’d get 1 month max if neither of you rats on each other. He warns you though, if you don’t rat and he does, you’d be getting the short end of the stick with 3 months whilst your friend gets away scot-free.
Now you know your friend faces identical options. What would you do?
You’re not sure, but you happened to have a brilliant lawyer who also did a little bit of economics and game theory. To help you visualize what you should do, he draws this table, which shows the four different outcomes of this situation.
The choice is actually pretty simple. You don’t know what your friend will do, because he could be a total jerk on the inside. But regardless of what he does, you'd get a lighter sentence if you sold him out – you’d get 0 months if he denies, and 2 months if he rats, compared to 1 month if he denies and 3 months if he rats. Therefore, you have a dominant strategy to totally betray him – it makes perfect sense.
Your friend is no idiot either, and he realizes he should totally do the same. End of friendship and two months later, both of you are released from prison. But the situation could have been so much better if both of you were a little more bro-ish and simply not sold each other out. You would’ve just gotten 1 month each.
You and your friend are now the latest victims of the prisoner’s dilemma.
This theoretical situation actually has practical applications. Two companies in a duopoly can earn higher profits if they agree to set prices high. In this case, the companies can also choose to betray each other by lowering prices of their own goods to capture higher market shares. Is it possible to cooperate in reality, you ask? Well, if you are still paying a thousand dollars for Galaxies and iPhones, then yes.
We’re caught in such situations all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always end up getting two months. That’s because, in theory, the prisoners' dilemma is simultaneous - both parties make a decision not knowing what the other would do, and because the situation occurs only once, you wouldn’t see any point of keeping your friendship in the face of a prison sentence.
In reality, however, parties can give signals to indicate their interest in cooperation. You could, for example, pass your friend a secret note telling him you’re going to deny. Or, better, call upon your underworld connections and threaten him with untold misery if he rats on you. Ok, maybe not, but you get the idea. Also, when the situation is repeated, several strategies can lead to cooperation, notably the Tit for Tat strategy.
Wait, so what has this borderline geek concept got to do with…
Why you should contribute to owlcove?
Let’s say a class has an upcoming test. Grades would be awarded as a bell curve. If the students don’t study, they’ll get their grades according to their ability anyway, without putting in effort. However, just as in the prisoner's dilemma, the students study for the test because that is their dominant strategy. In each student's perspective, studying always maximises their chances and yields the better result for them, regardless of what the others do.
Remarkably, students have actually managed to pull off cooperation, albeit in a slightly different test condition.
It’s not that you shouldn’t study. And we can't guarantee to improve your grades either, because there’s no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to things like results. (Yes, despite how tuition centres want you to think.) In a bell curve, grades can't go up for everyone.
Rather it’s about making it easier to do what you're doing and get what you’re getting. In that way, your lives become freer, so you can focus on your CCAs, competitions and commitments, have more family time, or simply pursue your hobbies, see more of the world.
At first thought, contributing notes seems to be at your own expense. Let's face it – as much as we are willing to help others, we need to take care of ourselves too.
The good news, however, is it doesn’t take much effort and time. All you need to do is upload some notes you would already be making, or contribute some thoughts and ideas.
A common doubt when it comes to this is whether the people you help will get better than you, overtake you, and stamp you down into the abyss of never-ending failure and doom. That is extremely unlikely, so don’t worry.
Firstly, your performance won’t drop simply because you help others. We ourselves studied together as a group, eventually doing better than we would have if we didn’t. Relative to each other though, we were pretty much the same. If my friend was better than me in Physics but worse in Math, he was still going to do at least as well as me in Physics and I was still going to do at least as well as him in Math. The truth is students are good at different subjects, and helping a weaker student isn't going to make him good at it suddenly. But it's going to make it less difficult and less challenging for him.
Secondly, when you help others, you help yourself too. Making notes and teaching others are good ways to revise and reinforce your own understanding. Just as soccer teams play friendlies, competition doesn't have to be destructive.
That’s how we did it. Let's say this concept has 4 steps of reasoning. Maybe it’s a math question. I know how to apply Step 1 and let x be this variable, but I'm stuck at Step 2. My friend understands Step 2 and helps me with it, but now he can't help me with Step 3 because he doesn't understand why x can be equated to y. Luckily, my tutor taught me this in class so we clear Step 3, and subsequently, Step 4, together.
It's like having two people instead of one solve a jigsaw puzzle. Too often, we are so engrossed in our own puzzles we don’t realise we are working on the same one.
Essentially, we are trying to extend the study group concept to encompass an entire community. So why hasn't this been done already? The fact is after graduating from one school, life only gets busier. Everyone who has graduated has his or her own grievances with the education system, but they wouldn’t have any reason to do anything about it because they’re out of it already.
That’s why it takes people who don’t mind doing the counterintuitive and illogical. To do things that seem to have no practical value other than perhaps it being good and the right thing to do.
On top of this, we want to make learning social and fun. When students want to study, you hear "deactivate Facebook" and "delete DotA". Obviously, studying is far from what anyone would call fun. We are missing out on how awesome it could be, and that makes us very unmotivated.
But it doesn't have to be this way.