Prisoner’s Dilemma and Teams

There’s a simple gambling game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma that is played by two players against each other with a banker who pays out winnings to the two players based on the outcome. Outcome 1 is both players cooperating and getting paid $300 each. In outcome 2 both players defect and is fined $10 each. Outcome 3 is when you cooperate and the other player defects, with the banker paying the other player $500 (for the temptation) and fines you $100 for being a sucker. In outcome 4, the last one, you defect and the other player cooperates with the result of you getting paid the grand prize of $500 and the second player becoming the sucker and fined $100.

Now you’re probably thinking, okay that’s nice, but what does this have to do with coaching and improving my team?

For starters it’s been shown that you can expect how likely people participating in a Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment are to cooperate or defect depending on priming cues before they start playing the game. Just naming the game in different ways affect how likely participants are to cooperate or defect when playing the game. If you for example call the game “The Wall Street game” participants become less cooperative. Calling it “The Community Game” enhances cooperation by participants. Showing a seemingly random list of words to the participants before they start the game also affects how likely they are to cooperate or defect. If you show one group of participants a list of words that include prosocial words like “help”, “harmony”, “fair” and for example “mutual” you will have a group that is more likely to cooperate. If the second group receives a list with words like “rank”, “power”, “inconsiderate” they are more likely to defect. This type of priming by a list of random words has also been done in a multitude of different studies with similar results in regards to cooperation and emotional states.

This implies that as a coach the words you choose to use can impact the likeliness of cooperation (and emotional state) within your team. Probably more so in regards to written communication by you and your organization than verbal communication. So maybe it’s a good idea to think about what words you use in your presentations and what words your organization put on the walls around you. There’s a good chance those words unconsciously affect the behavior of your team.

Taking the Prisoner’s Dilemma one step further, the political scientist Robert Axelrod sat out to test if there was any one strategy that would be more successful over time. He asked people to submit many different strategies and created computer simulations of a round robin game, meaning that every strategy played all the other strategies and itself. After running the game thousands of times and in different generations the conclusion was that there was one strategy that outlived everyone else by a big margin. It was called Tit-for-Tat and what it essentially does is to start out by cooperating and then it copies the behavior of it’s opponent. This means that if the other player defects, Tit-for-Tat punishes it by defecting itself in the following round before going back to copying the behavior of the other player.

When you as a coach have a team of different players you also have individuals that are in a way playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Everyone knows that as a team we will have a greater success if we cooperate, but there is still a number of temptations to defect from this strategy to further your personal gain as a player. Imagine for example a player deciding to shoot (because of that big goal-scoring bonus in the contract) instead of passing a player in a better position. Or maybe a player who stands still instead of transitioning to defending so that the starting position when attacking is better. You can also imagine other situations off the field where a player is tempted to defect for a seemingly greater personal gains.   

As a coach the question is if it possible to use your knowledge of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to improve or maintain a cooperative culture within your team and avoid players defecting for their own personal gain.

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