The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Toddler Game Theory

Is my two year old smarter than I am? Welcome to Tuesday here on ParentalGrit, where we continue Psychology Week with a little bit more on the Game Theory topic we covered yesterday. For those unaware (specifically those too lazy to check yesterday’s link), Game Theory is the study of decision-making and supporting mathematical models as it involves rational decision makers. The concept has roots tied to economics, psychology, finance, and a host of other fields of study; to my knowledge, it’s never been tied to parenting which has to be considered a chief failure of academics. I mean, if you’re going to study the abstract phenomenon of conflicting interests and its effects on decision making, is there really any need to venture beyond my discussions with my two year old? “Eliza, it’s time to go to bed.” “I want to eat and I just pooped and mommy gives milk and my blankie gave me an owwie.” If that’s not a LEVEL 10 mind-scramble of a misdirection that needs devoted psychological evaluation, then I have no idea what is.

We talked about the game of Chicken yesterday, where opposing forces consider the pros and cons of a head-on collision as it meets their needs. Today I wanted to look at one of the other signature dilemmas often associated with Game Theory, The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this scenario, two prisoners are isolated and facing some length of disciplinary action. The two prisoners, unable to communicate with each other, have a handful of options to proceed with their impending convictions. Option 1 is to betray the other, option 2 is to confess, and option 3 is to stay silent. If both prisoners betray each other, they spend 2 years in prison. However, if prisoner #1 betrays his partner while his partner does not, then #1 walks free and #2 spends 3 years in prison. If neither confesses, they each spend a single year in jail.

The prisoner’s dilemma is fascinating because the most rational objective decision is to betray one’s partner, even if a jointly agreed upon truce between the two convicted would also lend a lenient sentence. Again, what in the world does this have to do with parenting? EVERYTHING. As I mentioned before, young children are geniuses we should be studying with far more regularity than other samples. As it relates to this Game Theory exercise, I can share with you that my oldest child will always opt for option #1, where she hangs her sister out to try in a desperate attempt to secure the best possible outcome. As the example goes, betraying one’s partner is rationally the best option as it contains the only path to immediate freedom. A joint partnership of silence would still yield a single year in jail while a double betrayal would result in two years of confinement.

What is my oldest daughter after? Exactly what is in her best interest, which to this point means throwing her nearly 6 month old sister under the proverbial bus. If Eliza can somehow claim her baby sister Everly colored on the couch, then I have no doubts her partner would not fare well in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Eliza has no qualms about rendering her poor little sister’s reputation as tarnished—and this at the point when no real problems have surfaced. What can I expect moving forward if my savvy little ankle-biter is already knowledgeable enough to realize the potential gain from her sister taking the blame?

As the thought exercise continues, however, I also have begun to contemplate how they may form allegiance. One of the options of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, as mentioned, is that a joint alliance to silence results in a much lesser sentence than both a confession and a mutual betrayal. Is there a moment in my parenting future when both my girls bite their tongues’ and mount a joint effort against their helpless father?  What if they both select the second-best option and form a united stand against our parental abilities? This is where Game Theory is so fascinating—I mean, terrifying—when it comes to parenting. There are so many options for my sweet little girls to choose: renegade individually, unite as one, or bail on each other. My parenting, conversely, is caught at the fractured intersection of their decisions and my interpretation of their decisions.

I think I can say, with relative ease, that I will often be incapacitated with the contemplation of these decisions. My daughter, at just two years of age, is already exploring all of her options when it comes to defiance, justification, and blame; writing it in words almost makes her sound bizarre, but it’s ultimately every toddler’s path to understanding the world and how they affect it. I smile as she constantly twists and twirls in the ambiguity of excuses and rebuttals; my hands are full but my heart is as well. What a life.

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