Weekend Edition: Prisoner’s dilemma

By Jamie Etheridge

I learned about the prisoner’s dilemma in college. The story explains a paradox of decision making. It goes like this: Two men commit a bank robbery. They are caught and interrogated by the police. Beforehand, they both agreed to remain silent and never admit to the crime. The police offer both the same deal: Admit the crime, rat on your accomplice and you get a lesser sentence.

The men are in separate rooms. If both remain silent, the police do not have the evidence to convict either. But if either one breaks, then they both go to jail. Hence the paradox. If each chooses the ‘incentive’ (lesser jail time) and admits the crime, he is doing what seems best for himself. But now both prisoners are worse off (one gets the entire sentence, the one who talked a lesser sentence).

In Kuwait, we are now facing a prisoner’s dilemma of epic proportions. At grocery stores and co-ops around the country, people are doing what is best for themselves without thinking about the larger, greater good. If we all continue to shop sensibly, buy what we need for a few days and not hoard, there will be plenty and no one will panic. But if people hoard, then shoppers start to feel like there is less food to go around and panic, and when they panic, others panic and start rushing to buy more and more.

We saw this two weeks ago when the government closed the airport to commercial flights and declared an extension of the public holiday. The measures aimed to protect us all by encouraging more people to stay at home and prevent people who are infected from entering the country at will. But a few people panicked, rushing to the markets, and this triggered more panic and more people rushing to the markets until all of a sudden every shop in Kuwait was packed, shelves were depleted and people freaked out. The next day, of course, the government ensured that all shelves were restocked and life returned to the new normal.

Think about all the fresh veggies and fruit that will go to waste now because people overbought and cannot consume it all in the time before it rots. I won’t even mention the simple fact that most of us could do with skipping a few meals here and there and even trying to reduce how much we eat during this staying at home period so as not to pick up significant extra weight.

But the anxiety of the unknown – of not knowing what will happen in the future and more importantly, of what other people will do – lurks just beneath the surface of the current situation. So every time the government institutes a new decision, people start acting like the prisoner in the story…choosing the best option for themselves and making everyone (including themselves) worse off in the long run.

It is not easy to go against the flow. In any situation – whether it’s a global pandemic or even the latest trend – humans naturally follow each other. We are social beings and as such, we are easily influenced by each other. When a large group of people are stopped on the side of the road, looking at something in the distance, we too will stop and look, even if we are in a hurry, even if we are late for an appointment. This is a fundamental part of human nature. So when people start panic buying and hoarding, we think to ourselves, oh I better start buying more than I need too.

No one knows the future but as the situation in China has shown, the crisis will pass and life will return to normal. What is between now and then is not fully in our hands but there are many ways we can shape and influence this situation. By staying at home and #flatteningthecurve, for instance, to reduce the burden on our healthcare system and by not acting like a fidgety prisoner making bad decisions. If we all stay calm and buy only what we need, we will all be better off in the long run.

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