The Parable of the Prisoners

39 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2013 Last revised: 22 Jun 2013

See all articles by F. E. Guerra-Pujol

F. E. Guerra-Pujol

University of Central Florida; Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico

Date Written: June 21, 2013


Of the 78 possible strategic games in two-person game theory, one has acquired the most attention, and the most notoriety, from scholars and laymen alike. The so-called “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” or what we prefer to call the “Parable of the Prisoners,” is not only the most famous formal model of conflict and cooperation in the mathematical theory of games; it has also has generated extensive commentary in a wide variety of social sciences and other fields, including psychology, biology, politics, economics, law, and philosophy. In this paper, we shall revisit the origins of this popular parable and review a small but representative sample of this diverse literature, identifying common themes and ideas. We shall also present an opposing parable to show that the dilemma in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is unavoidable and inescapable in the one-shot version of the game, and we shall explain why this parable is more than just a story; it is an exemplar or mathematical “paradigm.”

In summary, this paper is organized as follows: following this brief introduction, Part 2 reconstructs the origins of the Parable of the Prisoners. Part 3 then reviews various versions of the parable and the uses to which this parable has been put. By way of contrast, Part 4 presents a diametrically different model of behavior — the Altruist’s Dilemma — based on a suggestion by Schelling (1968), and Part 5 explains why the original Prisoner’s Dilemma is not just an instructive parable but also a scientific “paradigm.” Part 6 concludes.

Keywords: Prisoner’s Dilemma, Altruist’s Dilemma, game theory, paradigm, Melvin Dresher, Merrill Flood, John Nash, A.W. Tucker

JEL Classification: B31, C72, K41, K42

Suggested Citation

Guerra-Pujol, F. E., The Parable of the Prisoners (June 21, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

F. E. Guerra-Pujol (Contact Author)

University of Central Florida ( email )

Orlando, FL 32816
United States


Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico ( email )

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