Using Game Theory to Explain Why Some People Aren’t Wearing Masks
I’ve been trying to watch the news a lot less lately for my own sanity, but it’s hard to ignore the divisiveness when it comes to respecting the guidelines given to us to deal with this situation. Some people are clamoring for others to stay home. Some are protesting that these restrictions impede their freedoms and are refusing to wear masks in public. Tensions are rising.
But who’s right? Are these restrictions impeding on personal freedoms? Do I really have to wear a mask in public?*
In short, there are too many definitions of “right” to come to a conclusive argument for either side, which is why this is stressful for all of us. But if we can all come to a better understanding of what personal freedoms mean outside of a vacuum, we can cooperate together in a productive way without feeling threatened and achieve a better outcome.
*This is a clear-cut yes, and here’s why.
The answer: Prisoner’s Dilemma
In the study of economics and other fields, there’s a topic called Game Theory. According to Wikipedia, Game Theory is the “science of logical decision making in humans, animals, and computers.” This study is a way for us to understand human behavior in social and professional settings, ultimately to help us make better decisions.
One of the most famous Game Theory examples is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
In this game, you have two criminals who have been arrested. They are placed in separate rooms and don’t have the ability to talk to each other. They can either confess or remain silent, and depending on what the other one does or doesn’t do, their sentence is impacted.
For example, look at the image in the blue square below. If both Prisoner A and Prisoner B remain silent, they both get a 2-year sentence. If they intended to collaborate, this is the ideal outcome as the total 4-year sentence is the lowest out of the 4 outcomes.
However, if Prisoner A remains silent, but Prisoner B confesses, the tables turn significantly. Prisoner A ends up with an 8-year sentence, while Prisoner B only gets 1 year. The 9-year total sentence is an inefficient outcome.
This is where things get tricky. Imagine you are prisoner A. If you have no contact with the other prisoner, you are incented to take the dominant strategy, confessing.
If you don’t, you risk facing 8 years if partner B does confess. Conversely, person B faces the same dilemma. Remaining silent gets the best total outcome, but there is a grave risk if you don’t confess and the other prison does.
Without cooperation, we end up with inefficient outcomes
The core lesson prisoner’s dilemma intends to teach is that cooperation leads to efficiency. One thing to consider, and it is sometimes a criticism of the prisoner’s dilemma game, is that this isn’t a repetitive scenario. Oftentimes, we interact with people more than once, so taking the dominant strategy (confessing) can hurt us in the long run. It’s also not to say that competition isn’t important, it is for economic growth, but there has to be some level of cooperation to achieve efficiency.
Imagine you own an ice cream parlor and there’s a competitor two blocks down from you. You both are doing curbside pick-up to sustain your businesses during these tough times. Now imagine you hire someone to stand at your competitor’s curbside pick-up station and harass customers.
You might sell a little more ice cream, but the people who would normally pick up from your competitor might start getting their ice cream at the grocery store instead or avoid it altogether. This is an inefficient outcome. What’s worse, if your competitor finds out about it, they might retaliate with fake negative online reviews of your parlor or hire someone to harass your customers during curbside pick-up.
If this escalates, it leaves you both out of business because people find their ice cream elsewhere. While this is an extreme case, it illustrates that cooperation might not always be obvious. You can still offer the lowest prices or the most innovative ice cream flavors, but intellectual and property rights give businesses and people space to compete in a rational, productive way.
What can this teach us about the conflict surrounding social distancing?
We are free to act and do as we please but within reason. The moment one person’s freedom starts to impede on another person’s freedom is where things get tricky and difficult. I might be free to stand curbside outside that ice cream parlor, but harassing people impedes their freedom to consume ice cream peacefully.
Fear is what drives the dominant strategy in the prisoner’s dilemma. The dominant strategy is taking the action that results in my best outcome, regardless of what happens to the other party, out of fear that I will get the sour end of the deal.
For the people who are protesting, this is the position they find themselves in. Their fear is that if they don’t take the dominant position, the government will, and we’ll find ourselves in a police state with our freedoms revoked. This is why they’re not wearing masks or abiding by social distancing guidelines.
Much like our ice cream parlor example, this retaliation can escalate and worsen the desired outcome. The local and national governments could respond with stricter laws (their own dominant strategy), only angering protesters even more.
With a contagious disease and no vaccine, regardless of the death rate debates, your freedom to chose not to wear a mask impedes the freedom of others for personal health and safety. I can empathize with why they might make this choice, but we know what happens when two parties play a dominant strategy: we get an inefficient outcome.
Cooperation is so important for us all right now and it doesn’t have to mean giving up our freedoms. If we can find that way to cooperate, re-open responsibly and respect the impact our actions might have on others, we’ll all be better off. And our freedoms will be intact.
And if you still need convincing about wearing a mask, Matthew McConaughey summed it up perfectly on CNN: “Science is behind us. Masks can help us catch up.”