Do you consider yourself a good person?
I’ve no doubt that any mature, reflective, well-adjusted individual has at some point spent at least some time considering this question.
‘Am I a good person?’
And certainly there are ways in which we can prove, to ourselves and others, of the inherent ‘goodness’ of our natures.We are, after all, also incredibly generous, according to my previous writing. We are loyal to our friends and family. Give of our time, money, and possessions to those in need. We never speak ill of those with whom we disagree and we never participate in negative gossip. As we walk through our days we are conscientious and courteous of others: we hold the door open for people, we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, we help little old ladies cross the street and load their groceries into their car.
For all intents and purposes we do all the things we feel we need to in order to effectively convince all those involved that we are good people.
But a good person can find himself in a bad situation. One day as you are walking along you suddenly find yourself in a dark room with a man whom you do not know. In front of you are two buttons, labeled ‘split’ and ‘steal’.
The stranger explains to you the following situation:
In another room is another random individual whom you have never met. Between the two of you is a total sum of one million dollars. If you and the stranger both decide to press the ‘split’ button, you will each receive a payment of $500,000. If you choose ‘split’ but the stranger chooses ‘steal’, they will walk away with the entirety and you will be left with zero. On the other hand if you choose ‘steal’ and the stranger chooses ‘split’, you will be given the entire million dollars. If you both choose ‘steal’ you will both walk away with nothing. There is no way for you to communicate with the stranger to assess the decision and you must make a choice.
So, do you choose to split or do you choose to steal?
Those of you who have studied psychology or game theory will realize that this is a stylized version of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma conceptualized by RAND Think Tank mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and formally structured by Albert Tucker. The original, actual Prisoner’s Dilemma is as follows.
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
- If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
- If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
- If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
You would perhaps think that the decision would be easy to make. One would simply have to consider one’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nature and make the decision based on that. But the reason why the Prisoner’s Dilemma has remained such a fascinating example of game and social theory is that it forces us to not only consider our nature, but the nature of the other person. The result of whether we choose to ‘split’ or ‘steal’ or ‘cooperate’ or ‘remain silent’ is not simply a result of our actions but a result of the other person’s as well. This is best illustrated as such:
From a purely logical standpoint, speaking from either prisoner’s perspective would show that the most logical decision would be to actually ‘defect’. (8 years is better than 20 years and free is better than 6 months.) Even though the absolute best outcome would be for BOTH A and B to ‘remain silent’ (what we consider the ‘good’ option). This requires a tremendous amount of trust in the good nature of other people. Especially when considering that, as I mentioned, the logical decision would be to ‘defect’ (what we consider the ‘bad’ option).
Do you have it in you to not only believe that you are a good person, but that this strange is also? Remember that the off-set if you choose to ‘remain silent’ or ‘split’ when your partner chooses to ‘defect’ or ‘steal’ is either 20 years in prison or no money at all.
This brings us to consider some very interesting things about our own good natures. The first is that we have to realize that our good nature is not objective. It’s actually very subjective. Therefore, good people cannot exist in a vacuum. If you are alone, and only interact with yourself, can any of your actions ever be considered ‘good’? We need other people. It is against the backdrop of various experiences and interactions that we actually define who we are. It doesn’t matter how often you tell yourself you are good or do good things for yourself, without someone to compare to it would be like throwing shadows against the wall.
Here’s a great example from a British game show called Golden Balls (I know, it certainly wouldn’t have been my idea for a game show name either).
As you watch the events unfold you are perhaps tempted to side with Ibrahim and find Nick to be a manipulative untrustworthy thief. He speaks of his father who gave him advice on a man and his word. He assures us all with emphatic enthusiasm that he is a noble man and has every intention of sharing. Nick on the other hand is unmoving and untrusting. He is prepared to risk it all for seemingly selfish gain by choosing ‘steal’ despite all of Ibrahim’s pleas.
What is interesting is what you DON’T see. The actual exchange during this final round was closer to almost an hour long. At a certain point the studio audience began to turn on Nick. They booed and jeered at him for what seemed like such a stubborn and selfish act. Everyone, wanting to believe in the good nature of Ibrahim’s words, was now on his side as they tried to convince Nick to choose ‘split’. Ultimately though you see that what looks like Ibrahim’s good nature (as he eventually relents) was actually manipulated by Nick’s knowledge not just of the game but of our human nature. (I would also like to point out that in a radio interview Ibrahim outright ADMITTED that a) he NEVER met his father and b) he had EVERY intention of choosing ‘steal’ had Nick agreed to choose ‘split’). But we only judge people by what we see and perceive, and so we were ready to side completely with Ibrahim.
The other interesting thing that comes up with the Prisoner’s Dilemma is how little our own nature actually influences our behavior. Humans are social creatures. We live and survive in packs. From the most primitive hunter-gatherer tribes to the vastly complicated international web of city-states, our survival is based on how we interact with each other. Therefore most of our decisions are also social based. If we believe in the good nature of others we are more likely to choose actions of good nature. But if we perceive any possibility of injustice or unfairness or of someone ‘getting away’ with something, we will go so far as to purposefully sabotage our own interests in order to deny others’. This isn’t immature or unnatural. In fact it is, if we are honest with ourselves, the truest most natural state of our mentality. Our justice system is not built around the idea of judging the morality of our actions but of punishing those who do things that we wouldn’t want to go unpunished.
This understanding extends beyond just contrived prison examples and cheesy British game shows. This is about our mutual success and/or mutual destruction. Countries should keep this in mind when considering policies on energy and climate change. We understand that the mutual benefit of an entire global community cutting back on emissions and using fuel is that we save our planet and last longer. But we also know that if we were to cut back but our neighbors do not, we would fall behind in industry and wealth. So who moves first?
In relationships this can extend to how we define our relationship with our partner. If we work together to compromise and soften our expectations and demands of each other we attain a better understanding and perhaps happier and longer union. But the danger of perception here is that if one is more willing to yield than the other, a power struggle could result and pride gets in the way. So who gives in first?
So here’s your new dilemma. When you’re walking down the street don’t just ask yourself:
Am I a good person?
Do I think you are?
Man: 64 Loneliness: 19