In the prisoner’s dilemma scenario, two prisoners are each interviewed separately and asked to cooperate with the authorities. Here is an except from Wikipedia on the dilemma.

"The classical prisoner’s dilemma can be summarized thus:

  Prisoner B Stays Silent Prisoner B Betrays
Prisoner A Stays Silent Each serves 6 months Prisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A Betrays Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 10 years
Each serves 5 years

In this game, regardless of what the opponent chooses, each player always receives a higher payoff (lesser sentence) by betraying; that is to say that betraying is the strictly dominant strategy. For instance, Prisoner A can accurately say, "No matter what Prisoner B does, I personally am better off betraying than staying silent. Therefore, for my own sake, I should betray." However, if the other player acts similarly, then they both betray and both get a lower payoff than they would get by staying silent. Rational self-interested decisions result in each prisoner being worse off than if each chose to lessen the sentence of the accomplice at the cost of staying a little longer in jail himself (hence the seeming dilemma). In game theory, this demonstrates very elegantly that in a non-zero-sum game a Nash equilibrium need not be a Pareto optimum."

So how does this apply to schools? Let’s replace the word "prisoners" with students and the word "authorities" with "school administrator or teacher." We actually replicate the exact circumstances of this dilemma in schools every time we "try and get the bottom" of a situation between two students.

Instead of the highly negative choices for the students being prison sentence, they are detentions, or reduction of marks, or a million other consequences we apply to children when they misbehave. Further, children will apply their own consequences for "snitching" so that even if the adult administering the punishment goes easy on the child who tattles, and acts harshly on the child apparently "responsible" for the dilemma, there is often a consequence for the child who tattled; they may be ostracized by their peers or even face physical violence.

A typical analysis of the prisoner’s dilemma indicates that the optimal choice for players of the game is to remain silent and accept the minor punishment, even if they haven’t committed the crime. When we place school children in the same situation, don’t they react exactly the same way? This is not what we want, simply because in order to help a child who has misbehaved, we need information in order to help them. We need to understand what is going on so it is not repeated over and over again, as is normal in unresolved disputes.

There are two solutions I see for resolving the prisoner’s dilemma in schools. One, don’t isolate the kids and have the conversation about the misbehaviour as a group. This breaks the conditions of the prisoner’s dilemma as now each participant is aware of the other’s response. Two, change how you define misbehaviour so that you don’t end up in this situation. My recommendation, if you are more interested in the second of these options is to check out Restitution, although I am sure there are other ways to do this.

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