Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
The war versus peace dilemma.
An example of the prisoner's dilemma in terms of war versus peace and the resulting stalemate.

What is the Better Survival Strategy: Cooperation or Competition

The American Dilemma: Selfish versus selfless.

In this article, I will attempt to explain one of the modern problems of the United States: the growing discontent between the upper, middle and lower classes and the battle between greed and altruism. It seems greed always wins. So, how does the good guy win without fighting back and eroding the foundation of society? I call this the American Dilemma because it parallels the Prisoner’s Dilemma as I will explain. I believe there is a third option, between greed and altruism, that is being overlooked, something between selfish and selfless.

I will explain using the classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which tests whether people are inclined to be competitive or cooperative.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma. It pays to be greedy.

The classic prisoner's dilemma
The classic prisoner’s dilemma to cooperate with your friend and remain silent or to confess and hope to go free.

To summarize, two criminals are caught, but the prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to convict them. So, the prosecutor offers a bargain: if both confess (betray their partner) their sentences will be reduced. However, if only one confesses and the other doesn’t, the guilty confessor will essentially have to serve a prison term for both. The catch is that if both criminals stay silent, they will serve a short sentence for a reduced charge due to lack of evidence. Thus the dilemma:

  1. Would you be greedy and hope to go free by betraying your friend,
  2. Or would you cooperate and stay silent risking a long prison term?

War Versus Peace — the Ultimate Prisoner’s Dilemma

The war versus peace dilemma.
An example of the prisoner’s dilemma in terms of war versus peace and the resulting stalemate.

The picture below is an example of the prisoner’s dilemma reframed as the choice between war and peace. In this case, both sides are imagining they are defending themselves against an enemy who wants to win all the spoils of war. We can see that 3 out of 4 possibilities are bad for both sides. One possibility is war and two possibilities of stalemate, like the Cold War, represented by the tic-tac-toe illustration. As you may know, with two equally matched players tic-tac-toe is an unwinnable game. The Cold War was never won. Russia simply went bankrupt first, trying to match the USA bomb for bomb. (The USA still seems on the verge of suffering a similar fate.) Even if one side were to win the war, it is arguably worse in the long run because it destabilizes their economy or — worse — destroys the global ecosystem.

Does altruism exist?

No good deed goes unpunished

Altruism is defined as the “behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.” Why would anyone sacrifice themselves for another’s benefit? It turns out that, like many things, the problem of altruism was solved in a bar after a few pints of beer. The biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked how far he would go to save the life of another person. “I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one,” Haldane said. “Or to save eight cousins but not seven.” 1 In other words, saving a family member is another way to promote that our DNA survives, besides having children. There is even a formula for how an altruistic gene might benefit a group or entire species.

It seems that being altruistic, or selfless, breaks when put into practice. Ironically, selfless people are often considered to be manipulative as this article discusses: Why overly kind and moral people can rub you up the wrong way.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma in the Corporate World

Likewise in the corporate world, two companies with equal products waging a marketing or price war are going to expend a lot of unnecessary energy. The classic example is the Cola Wars between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Both companies kept lowering their price trying to win more customers from the other company with the same product. Eventually, the price got so low that neither company could earn a profit. In some price wars, companies lose money because they spend so much on advertising.

An illustration of greed versus altruism
An example of the prisoner’s dilemma in terms of greed versus altruism. Both greedy and altruistic people cancel each other out.

So far these examples are part of game theory and get quite complex if the scenario starts to repeat and there is retaliation involved. But let’s simplify the problem by redrawing the prisoner’s dilemma using a greedy person and an altruistic person. I think this resembles how polarized American society has become. You could think of this as good and evil if you wish or Democratic versus Republican. Let’s assume the greedy person is purely selfish, thinking life is a matter of survival of the fittest; and the altruistic person is purely selfless, thinking that everyone else’s needs are more important, especially family and friends.

So, when there are only two types of people, the best strategy is to be greedy, because 100% of the time the greedy person either makes money or breaks even; however, the greedy people may not lose money, but they aren’t helping each other either. And the worst strategy is to be altruistic because only about 25% of the time would an altruistic person succeed; however, success would always involve helping others, and it may never pay back anything directly to them or their friends or family. In effect, the selfless person often loses their passion to participate because there is no self in the equation. So, in the end, the greedy person and the selfless person both have the same effect on the world—neither one is creating a strong foundation to stand on.

Greed versus Altruism is there an alternative choice?
Has the pendulum swung to the extremes?

Both greed and altruism are survival strategies that work in certain circumstances, but both are solutions that operate on a deep subconscious level and are more reactive than proactive. Greed ensures that we store nuts for the winter, and altruism ensures the survival of our DNA. One ensures the survival of the individual; the other ensures the survival of the species. And, as you can see by the next illustration, they are both extreme ends of the spectrum or pendulum swing, of human behavior. Greed and altruism might still be valid survival strategies if humans still lived in small groups in a jungle, but as you know the world gets smaller every day. Now little actions can have global consequences, like spraying pesticides or burning oil. Therefore both traits have the potential to become too extreme and undermine everything around them.

But what if we don’t live in a binary, polarizing world full of cops and robbers, good and bad, profit or loss, slave and master, victim and victimizer, friend and stranger, terrorist and terrorized? What if there is a person who isn’t ruled by the instincts of greed or altruism?

The Common Good — A New Survival Strategy

Here I present a third type of person that can balance both instincts. Let’s say they are blessed with the intuition or education to see the bigger picture. Instead of being independent or codependent, they are interdependent. Instead of being reactive, they are proactive. Example: What if in the prisoner’s dilemma, rather than seeking to give justice to the police (good guys) and punish the criminals (bad guys), an arbitrator said, “The damage has already been done. The ‘bad’ guys were just trying to survive. And, it is not in anyone’s best interest to waste resources to punish people and fuel their anger and waste years of their life. Instead, let’s fix the problem. The guilty will pay reparations to the victim, and the guilty will also get the help they need. If they chose to steal because they had a drug addiction, let’s get them medical care. If they don’t know any better, let’s educate them. Etc.” Or in the case of a corporation price war, what if the two corporations cooperated to create an even better product that even more people needed or wanted to purchase? Why do we need dozens of different brands of nearly identical cola? How will humans ever colonize Mars if every corporation and every country is competing and forced to reinvent all technologies needed, and waste all the time and resources to duplicate these spaceships?

Let’s call this new kind of person “Common Good,” someone who looks beyond themselves and the people involved (especially friends and family) to consider the global society and even the entire ecosystem.

In our illustration below three people meet and each has 4 coins:

  1. The greedy person always takes as much money as possible.
  2. The selfless person always gives their money away.
  3. And the Common Good always distributes the money equally.

What happens when these three types of people interact under these rules? The graph below shows the result.

The American Dilemma

The American Dilemma
The American Dilemma: Does it pay more to be greedy, selfless, or fight for the common good? A reframing of the prisoner’s dilemma, but with one extra person added. As you can see, the selfish and selfless each have a chance of failing, whereas if we add a person who acts on behalf of the greater good, everyone always wins.

At first glance, you can see there is much more green. The probability to succeed for all people goes from 25% to 78%. Also whenever Common Good is part of the group, it cancels out the extreme natures of both Greedy and Altruistic people. This model assumes Greed went first, but the results might be even better if Common Good were to go first. In this case, I imagine they would all pool their money together.

I call this the American Dilemma because our culture is at a turning point where the old system no longer works. The rules were set in place and, for the most part, the altruistic are content to follow them, but it only takes one greedy person to cause a lot of unintentional harm. I hope that rather than see the American Dilemma as a struggle between the 1% so-called elite and everyone else, we can see it as a game we can all win.

And if that wasn’t convincing enough and you feel being greedy ensures your survival: Taking action for the common good is—in fact—the most selfish thing you can do, because ultimately what is good for society is good for you.

The infinite prisoner’s dilemma

After I wrote the above article, I found this video which arrives at the same conclusion in a different way.

The TED-Ed video below, “How to outsmart the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” is a brilliant explanation of how to improve your future. It’s a little complicated. (I actually wrote another article on the prisoner’s dilemma that might help give you some background.) Allow me to explain: The infinite prisoner’s dilemma is the same as the regular prisoner’s dilemma, but the same problem occurs every day. It involves two gingerbread men who have to decide whether it is more beneficial to spare or sacrifice their friend’s arms and legs to a hungry wolf to avoid being eaten themselves. When looking at this problem as if it will occur only once, it is always beneficial to sacrifice your friend. But if you look at this problem as if it repeats every day, it is always beneficial to spare your friend. Today the gingerbread men care about their arms and legs 100%. Tomorrow they care less about their arms and legs. And in the distant future, they care almost nothing about their arms and legs being eaten by a wolf. But at what point in the future do the two gingerbread men switch from being selfish to altruistic? Answer: When they believe they have a 33% chance that tomorrow will be better than today. Yep, if you care about your life tomorrow only as much as 1/3 of what you care about your life today, you will be on an upward trajectory. 

If you enjoyed this story… 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Subscribe to get new stories in your inbox. 

If you are feeling generous, even $1 helps keep me caffeinated and inspired. Or make an anonymous gift from my Amazon Wishlist.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More stories like this

This article is more for scientists and field researchers. A practical step forward in determining global oxygen depletion rates. A conclusion to decades of research.
My first life experiment will be about a topic that seems commonplace: how to lose weight. Here I try a variation of a mindfulness diet. I call it the Do-Nothing Diet. Can I lose weight by literally doing nothing?
I call this concept "The rule of thirds." We can use this rule to help us find alternate solutions or judge whether we are achieving success with the one solution we are using.
Footprint in the sand

Subscribe to my newsletter ​

I enjoy sending short stories about my adventures. I also send updates with free worksheets, new books and inspirational ideas to help you live a more joyful and meaningful life.