Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (6B14)

Date: 12/11/2019

Title:                            Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb

Author:            William Poundstone

Publisher:        Rive Gauche Publishing House


How can we assume a win in a poker game? How can we maximize our profit in a duopoly? And how can we gain the most interest for society…… There are so many examples in daily life involving conflict and cooperation. And obviously, they affect our daily activities.


Here, I would like to introduce a book called ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb’ written by William Poundstone.


As its title suggests, this book is mainly about Game Theory. However, different from the one for entertainment, the ‘game’ here refers to any kinds of conflict-and-cooperation situation.


It seems like Game Theory has nothing to do with maths, science and computer. However, in fact, the Theory is a study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation among intelligent rational decision-makers. It is mainly used in economics, psychology, as well as political science and computer science. It is an interactive mathematics, which can be used to explain many kinds of decision-making. Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the most well-known applications of the Theory, in which, two prisoners, A and B, each with no means of communicating with the other, are 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 possible outcomes are:

·         If A and B each betrays the other, each of them will serve two years in prison

·         If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)

·         If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison.


In brief, it is a situation in which two prisoners must decide whether to betray each other or not. At the individual's level, it is the best for one player to betray another, so as to ensure one’s own safety or maximize one’s interest. However, the tricky point in this case is that, when both players choose the best action for themselves, they will actually get the second worse result, which is just a little bit better than being betrayed by the other.


Among all branches in mathematics, logic has a relatively strong connection with our daily lives. Just as I mentioned at the beginning, when we play a game, we need to maximize our chances to win. Learning more about the Game Theory helps us to make decisions more sensibly, as well as minimizing our loss. This is a worth-reading book and I hope you will enjoy it. Thank you.

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