What game theory says about negotiating with terrorists

April 19, 2018 § 33 Comments

Wikipedia describes the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a construct in Game Theorylike this:

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)

The thing to notice about the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a one-off situation is that each prisoner is better off betraying the other, no matter what the other prisoner does.

However real life does not consist of a single one-off choice, and the PD can be re-imagined as an ongoing game with repeated rounds, where years in prison are replaced by points in the game: “less years in prison” equals more points, if you will, and the more points you get the better you are doing in the game.  Each round of the game a player chooses whether to cooperate or defect, and the game is played for an indeterminate number of rounds.  The goal is to maximize how well you are doing “against the House” not against the other player: to minimize total years in prison, if you will.

In this iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, wherein two players engage in the game repeatedly, actual human beings use the game itself to communicate with each other and collaborate.  A very effective strategy in an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (played against another human being) is not betrayal but “tit-for-tat“: cooperate with the other player unless he defects; if he defects then ‘punish’ him by defecting on the next round.  In this way a pair of “prisoners” can optimize their score against the house over time, by learning to cooperate.

Iterated “games” are fundamentally different from one-off situations.  This is why intelligent decision makers learn, over time, not to negotiate with terrorists.  Terrorist negotiations may (or may not) change the outcome in a particular case, for better or worse.  (The choice there is ultimately up to the terrorist, not the negotiator, since presumably the negotiator is not proposing to do something evil himself).

But choosing to negotiate with terrorists in general is what gives terrorists power; and in an open-ended iterated “game” this means that in the long run the evil party wins.  Each negotiation increases the power of “team terrorist”. If this goes on long enough morality will invert: “team terrorist” will be seen as victims rather than perpetrators; opposing their wanton slaughter of the innocent will come to be seen as oppressive tyranny; and the mountains of corpses will pile up to the sky.  (I say “will” as if this were a future prediction rather than a retrospective).

At least we’ll all be able to pat ourselves on the back and feel like we are taking a nice pastoral, conservative, live-and-let-live approach, though.

§ 33 Responses to What game theory says about negotiating with terrorists

  • LarryDickson says:

    Any power-based analysis results in the conclusion that the evil party wins. This is because the evil party (by definition) has more options. All morally permissible options are available to the evil party as well as the good party, but morally impermissible options are available to the evil party only.

    This is the logic of Satan, and also the logic of “choice” (as in abortion). It is also the logic of free-market economic theory (homo economicus), by which the winner is the parent who kills his children and sells the children’s organs for a large sum of money.

  • Rhetocrates says:

    It’s worth pointing out that ‘tit for tat’ clearly wins out only in the very limited case of a field of iterated dilemmas, all played between players with different strategies, none of which include an analysis of the opponent’s strategy.

    Further, ‘tit for tat’ is very fragile; it’s very important that the first round always cooperate against a new player, or else degenerative feedback can develop.

    All in all it’s not a terribly good model for recommending human behaviour. None of which detracts from your central point; I just get a sour taste in my mouth whenever people start talking about the prisoner’s dilemma.

  • Zippy says:

    Rhetocrates:

    Fair enough — the main point being that in iterated “game” is an entirely different animal from a one-off.

    More specifically, treating the hostage crisis of abortion as if it were a one-off is a basic mistake — not just morally (though certainly that), but even on the very ‘practical’ basis under which treating the perpetrator as victim is usually justified. Treating abortion as a ‘practical’ problem of saving babies now by treating the perpetrators as victims has made the (ostensible) pro-life movement pro-choice, as folks with sufficient powers of observation can see.

    LarryDickson:

    All morally permissible options are available to the evil party as well as the good party, but morally impermissible options are available to the evil party only.

    Yes.

    These ‘pastoral’ approaches also inevitably turn the ‘good guys’ into bad guys.

    Said differently, playing a ‘short game’ always loses in the long run, whatever may be ostensibly gained in the short term by making deals with the Devil.

  • My response to terrorists: Yippee ki-yay! Except I don’t take off my socks and shoes.

  • Mrs. Diligent says:

    I know the last several posts were prompted by abortion, but I was thinking of how a similar dynamic plays out over so many hot button issues. I am particularly thinking of the annulment/divorce/remarriage/communion racket (where I have particular skin in the game). It does seem that the attitude of many divorced Catholics is “give me Communion or I’ll take my warm body out of the pew and my money with me.” We faithful, abandoned spouses watch on bitterly as the Church appears to capitulate. We know that the demands for concessions have not been staunched, but only started.
    Zippy, does this hostage/terrorist dynamic have its roots in liberalism, or merely fallen human nature?

  • Zippy says:

    Mrs. Diligent:

    I don’t think it is specific to liberalism but liberalism probably amplifies it; especially when it comes to holding one’s own children or even one’s own self hostage.

  • Mrs. Diligent says:

    “Holding one’s own self hostage.”

    Is that not the zeitgeist of the Current Year in a nutshell? 🙂

  • Mike T says:

    Setting aside the rear guard role of right liberalism for a moment, I think this post is another good rolled-newspaper-to-the-snout of right liberals like the NRO set that are always identifying insanity on the left and then patting themselves on the back that their capitulation shows what ethical people they are. They’re always concerned about how their enemies will perceive them, even if their enemies are murderous tyrants in the making. I can’t remember who said it, but as an example, a historian pointed out that if Kerensky had just shot a bunch of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks instead of negotiating with them, 80m subjects of the Russian Empire wouldn’t have died during the Soviet era. But hey… not an extremist.

  • A Portuguese Man says:

    Hello, sorry for the OT.

    I’m getting married next month – which decision was partly due to my reading of Zippy’s for a while – so thanks are in due. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have stood my ground for marriage hadn’t it been for Zippy’s arguments on authority and the authority of the Church, for instance, since my bride isn’t particularly Catholic – or religious – herself.

    Anyway, I’m faced with having to choose passages from the Scripture to be read at the Mass, so I’d like to invite all of you to suggest the ones you think are more beautiful or apt for the occasion.

    Many thanks to all, and particularly Zippy.

    APM

  • Rhetocrates says:

    Fair enough — the main point being that in iterated “game” is an entirely different animal from a one-off.

    And your main point is intact. Specifically, those strategies that involve continued cooperation regardless of your opponent’s behaviour are the absolute worst of all strategies. In other words, those people whose argument runs, “If we start defecting against terrorists (by defending ourselves, by changing our lives to account for the danger, by taking steps to remove their ability to terrorize us), the terrorists win,” are criminally stupid.

    And the same goes for abortionists and their willing associates, who are really just terrorists with a different label.

  • Ian says:

    Seems like this post could apply to voting as well, e.g., “choosing to negotiate with terrorists in general is what gives terrorists power” = “choosing to participate in electoral politics by voting is what gives liberalism power”.

  • Ian says:

    A Portuguese Man,

    Congratulations.

    For Scripture readings, why not choose the traditional ones, which I think are Ephesians 5:22-33 and Matthew 19:3-6?

  • Ian says:

    Mike T,

    They’re always concerned about how their enemies will perceive them…

    I don’t know. You hear this a lot (“so-and-so wants to make sure he still gets invited to the DC cocktail parties”), but if they cared so much, wouldn’t they just be left-wingers?

    It’s probably a phenomenon that occurs more with politicians than it does with NRO-niks.

  • APM:

    Congratulations. I personally am partial to the reading from Genesis 1 and the reading from Tobit, and I concur with Ian’s suggestions.

  • Wonderful news! I concur with Eden.

    Advice from someone with no practical experience: Try to ensure she agrees to love, honor, and obey.

  • Blech. Concur with Ian, I mean.

  • Mike T says:

    Ian,

    You hear this a lot (“so-and-so wants to make sure he still gets invited to the DC cocktail parties”), but if they cared so much, wouldn’t they just be left-wingers?

    No, it’s a refusal on the part of the negotiators to internalize that the terrorists are actually terrorists. There’s something about “mainstream right-liberals” in particular that cannot internalize the idea that Hitler was also a dog lover, polite in public and loved (healthy, Aryanish) babies.

  • Zippy says:

    A Portugese Man:

    Let me add my voice to the congratulations!

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    No, it’s a refusal on the part of the negotiators to internalize that the terrorists are actually terrorists.

    It isn’t like we are talking about the ongoing deliberate pre-meditated mass murder of a hundred plus million human beings or anything.

  • Rhetocrates says:

    Hmm, I don’t know…

    I’ve never heard, in specific Catholic gatherings that for better or worse de facto focus on pro-life advocacy, that our first priority must be caring for the needs of the poor, unfortunate victimized mothers who have had abortions.

    There’s not a WordPress tag for sarcasm.

  • Mike T says:

    It isn’t like we are talking about the ongoing deliberate pre-meditated mass murder of a hundred plus million human beings or anything.

    Abortion, a Holocaust so severe that it cries out to the Heavens for mercy for the camp guards.

  • Mike T says:

    * That’s how the mainstream pro-life folks see it anyway.

  • Mrs. Diligent says:

    Dear Zippy,

    I don’t visit many blogs, so when I read your sporadic posts, I always forget that they are usually the tip of the iceberg of a much larger discussion that is happening somewhere else on the interwebs.

    I did not realize that a lot of words have been written – over quite a long time – about the justice/legal possibility/morality of prosecuting women for obtaining abortions.

    But I spent some time this weekend looking into it and, UGH. I had thought it was all a big misunderstanding blown up by breathless Drudge headlines over Kevin Williamson, but NO. It turns out that quite a lot of intelligent and committed pro-lifers have made sober and and lengthy defenses of the idea that women who obtain abortions (both now and in some wished-for future where abortion is considered legally murder) should face very minimal or no penalties at all for the abortion because of outside pressure/inability to see the victim/other weirdness.

    All this time I was feeling rather defensive, because I thought the position of many pro-lifers on this issue had been misrepresented here. But the position you described does exist, and I have now read the arguments for it directly from those who hold it, and they are unsatisfactory.

    Even more embarrasing is that it was I who was misrepresenting this particular pro-life position…and then defending the misrepresentation! Double UGH.

    At last count, you have forced me to revisit, rethink and adjust my position on
    1. torture
    2. usury
    3. voting
    4. liberalism
    5. the logical conclusions of opposing abortion

    Couldn’t you just post recipes or something, and leave me in peace with my heresies? 🙂

  • Mike T says:

    Mrs. Diligent,

    You made the mistake of assuming they took their positions as seriously as you take yours.

    should face very minimal or no penalties at all for the abortion because of outside pressure/inability to see the victim/other weirdness.

    Furthermore, “abort or I will leave you” is the sum total of most of that coercion. So it’s not like in Current Year that there is a real threat there other than a loss of “love.” This isn’t ${CURRENT_YEAR – 400} where a woman is facing ruin if she stands by principle because there is no shortage of organizations willing to help her.

    When you read what they’re saying, it’s about as pathetic as a man arguing he had to do evil because his wife wouldn’t sleep with him otherwise.

  • Mrs. Diligent says:

    Mike T: thank you for being so generous.

    I am hesitant to post further on this topic, because I now realize it has all been said before, but what really got my goat about this particular pro-life position is that we already have a legal system that recognizes many different shades of gray when it comes murder: first degree, second degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, accessory after the fact, accessory before the fact, blah, blah. PLUS, we already consider mitigating factors such as abuse, coercion, mental competence etc, etc. This is the raison d’etre of defense attorneys!

    Basically, if a women kills her unborn baby, we already have a legal system that would look at the sum-total of the circumstances (including possible coercion), and adjust itself according. There is no need for special snowflake rules.

    I am sure lots of people have banged on this drum before me. Only, this weekend was the first time I realized it was a drum that actually needed banging, dangnabbit!

  • Mike T says:

    I wouldn’t even call it generosity. I’ve been there too, and I’m pretty sure Zippy has as well. Trump went through it in public in 2016 when the pro-life movement denounced him rather than cheering him for suggesting that there had to obviously be some consequence to abortion.

    As Zippy put it, what are these people going to do when they’re faced with a woman being able to effectively perform her own abortion without medical assistance from outside parties? The tech is coming for that, but for now a woman can easily cross the border and get outlawed pills in Mexico and elsewhere. I truly think that’s the hill where the mainstream pro-lifers movement is going to die or come around. Unfortunately, the former is more likely than the latter.

  • Mike T says:

    The left has frequently argued that the pro-life movement uses the murder argument as a smokescreen to simply tell women how to live their lives. The pro-lifers who refuse to consider the idea of throwing women into prison for seeking an abortion are simply not going to have an argument there.

  • Mr. Green says:

    Mrs. Diligent: But I spent some time this weekend looking into it

    If you have any articles you think are particularly relevant, I’d be grateful if you could share the links.

  • Mike T says:

    Mr. Green,

    Doug Wilson is a big name in conservative circles. W4 is not particularly big, but is representative of the “thinking set” in the mainstream socially conservative right.

    https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/trump-corduroy-pillow.html

    https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/abortion-first-degree.html

    http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2016/04/abortion_and_punishing_women.html

    Dalrock has a few posts where he goes after the inconsistencies and cites more folks:

    https://dalrock.wordpress.com/category/abortion/

  • Mike T says:

    If not, it’s a great example of SJW infiltration into the nominal right-wing. As VD said, we can eventually look forward to the last NRO writers publishing their “conservative case for cannibalism and genocide” once the barbarians complete the mop up operations.

  • Mike T says:

    Related: use diaper changing time as a chance to teach your child that their consent matters.

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