Games Within Games

Stephen Dubner asks an intriguing question:

Pretend for a minute that you have done something to put yourself in jeopardy and are facing a real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma. Now pretend additionally that you get to choose your partner in the dilemma. There are three people to choose from. You cannot see or talk directly to the three people, but you are allowed to ask one question of each of the three people to help make your decision.

What is the one question you’d ask?

Commenters then came up with a bunch of ideas, and experimental economics jock John List winnowed them down to five, among which the commenters are now voting.

So here are your five choices:

1. “How old are you?”

2. “What is the number of ethics courses you’ve taken, minus the number of economics courses you’ve taken?”

3. “Given that you are in a bar, would you prefer to pursue the most attractive person in the bar, or would your efforts focus on someone less attractive?”

4. “What is the name and address of your most cherished family member?”

5. “Have you read Freakonomics?”

Option 4, which List describes as the coercive option, seems to be doing surprisingly well in the voting. But these people seem to me confused. “Ask a question, get an answer” is also a game of cooperation in which players can defect. Importantly, Dubner does not stipulate the other players will answer the question at all, much less tell the truth. (The thought experiment strikes me as badly underspecified, in fact, since it’s not clear what’s the pre-PD payoff matrix for the people faced with these questions. If I’m chosen to be in the PD, my choice set improves or deteriorates? Or what?) Anyway, if someone asked me the name and address of my most cherished family member, in an attempt to change the way I represent my payoffs, I would surely lie and then, if placed in the PD, I’d defect on that asshole.

In this circumstance, the question is not just an opportunity for eliciting useful information about the candidate partners’ cooperativeness, but an opportunity to signal your own.

I think I would ask, “How can I help you?” The best answer would be, I think, “How can I help you?”