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Think Complexity by Allen B. Downey

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Chapter 14. Case Study: The Volunteer’s Dilemma

Molly Grossman, Mandy Korpusik, and Philip Loh

The Prairie Dog’s Dilemma

Suppose you are a prairie dog assigned to guard duty with other prairie dogs from your town. When you see a predator coming, you have two choices: sound the alarm or remain silent. If you sound the alarm, you help ensure the safety of the other prairie dogs, but you also encourage the predator to come after you. For you, it is safer to remain silent, but if all guards remain silent, everyone is less safe, including you. What should you do when you see a predator?

This scenario is an example of the Volunteer’s Dilemma, a game similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma discussed in Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, each player has two options: cooperate and defect. In the Volunteer’s Dilemma, each player also has two options: volunteer (sound the alarm in our prairie dog example) or ignore (remain silent). If one player volunteers, then the other player is better off ignoring. But if both players ignore, both pay a high cost.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, both players are better off if they both cooperate; however, since neither knows what the other will do, each independently comes to the conclusion that he or she should defect.

In the Volunteer’s Dilemma, it is not immediately clear what outcome is best for both players. Suppose the players are named Alice and Bob. If Alice volunteers, Bob is better off ignoring; if Alice ignores, Bob is better off volunteering. This ...

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