Barry Nalebuff
Professor, Yale School of Management

Barry Nalebuff Explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Barry Nalebuff explains game theory’s most famous corollary.

Barry Nalebuff

Barry Nalebuff is the Milton Steinbach Professor of Management at the Yale School of Management.  Professor Nalebuff has written on a wide variety of subjects ranging from strategy to pricing, bidding to bargaining, and innovation to incentives. He is an expert on game theory and has written extensively on its application for managers.  His most recent book, The Art of Strategy, is an update of the best-selling Thinking Strategically, which explains the fundamentals of game theory using real world examples.

Professor Nalebuff's work on strategy focuses on the fundamental duality in business—the conflict between cooperating to create a pie and competing to divide it up—which he presents in Co-opetition. His book, Why Not?, focuses on providing a framework for problem solving and ingenuity. His work on product bundling was featured in the European Union's investigation of the proposed GE-Honeywell merger.


Question: What is the origin of the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

Barry Nalebuff: The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes back to two researchers at  RAND, Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and it’s a classic story; you’ve seen God knows how many movies.

You interrogate two prisoners separately and the idea is that anyone who confesses is given some leniency, provided they confess first. And, of course, if neither of the two confesses. I have limited evidence against them so they do pretty well. And if they both confess, then the immunity isn’t worth anything.

However, each one is afraid that the other one is going to confess and so therefore confesses, and the police get all the information that they want.

This also raises a couple of things, one that the outcome of the game, in this case confess-confess, can be good or bad from the player’s perspectives, depending on who you are. If you are the prisoners, well, then it’s a disaster. If you are the police or society, it can be a good thing.

We see this with OPEC. The question is, how much oil that any one country choose to bring to the market. And it’s almost the case, no matter what quantities other members of OPEC supply, each one wants to put more on. And then, of course, when everyone does put more, the cartel is much less effective.


Recorded on: Oct 2, 2008