Orange Is the New Black: The Prisoner's Dilemma Compounded?

How does an unexpected reward complicate the classic dilemma in women's prison?

Posted Jul 19, 2014

Orange Is the New Black season two opener, "Thirsty Bird."

The Netflix women's prison series Orange Is the New Black opened its second season by posing a problem for its principal prisoner Piper Chapman (played by actress Taylor Schilling): Tell the truth about a major drug lord and risk his wrath, or perjure herself by lying to keep him from striking back against her and her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Whereas Piper wants to tell the truth to protect herself from a perjury charge and to put him away, Alex insists they both lie to protect themselves from him. These prisoners may face a social dilemma, but is it really social psychology's so-called Prisoner's Dilemma?

In a social dilemma, two or more people enter a situation in which they each take action while facing a conflict between individual and mutual interest: They can prioritize either their own short-term, selfish, individual desires or the long-term benefits to eveybody involved. Each can benefit by showing the other good faith. However, one can benefit more by hurting the other but only if the other does not do the same, and all will suffer if everyone abuses the situation. The motion picture A Beautiful Mind demonstrated how John Forbes Nash, Jr., realized that if every man pursued the most attractive woman in the room, they might annoy her and offend all the other women, but if they all ignored her and pursued the other women, every man might find himself with a date for the evening. By identifying the dynamics of their social dilemma, he saw how prioritizing mutual interest over the individual could benefit the largest number of people whereas prioritizing individual interest could hurt everyone involved.

In the Tragedy of the Commons, for example, people sharing a resource like community water can all sustain the resource as long as they each use only their own share. When someone uses more than their fair share of the water, which can feel like winning, that isolated bit of cheating's effect in exhausting the resources might feel negligible, but that individual's advantage disappears when others cheat as well and deplete the water to everyone's detriment. While social dilemmas might seem like win-lose situations, they're more complicated than that, typically with at least three obvious possibilities. There might not even be a winning option. It could be lose, lose more, or lose it all. That fear of losing more might inspire a frantic all-or-nothing gamble.

The Prisoner's Dilemma derived from an anecdote about two suspects being questioned separately by a prosecuting attorney who had only enough evidence to convict them of a lesser offense if neither confessed. So he explained to each that if either one confessed, that one would get immunity while the other would get a strong sentence for a more severe crime. 

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If they both betray one another (each confessing while hoping the other does not) in such a predicament, no one receives immunity and both get a stronger sentence for the lesser crime. Of the four possible outcomes (immunity, light, stronger, severe), the strongest penalties so powerfully outweight the lightest that the greatest benefit to the suspects overall comes about when both show good faith and refuse to betray each other. In the figure above (follow link to see full illustration), the suspects serve an average of only one year apiece when both stay silent. Over the years, researchers have conducted thousands of stimulations in which participants, quite often college students, faced outcomes involving jail time that they knew to be imaginary or goods like money or course points that they expected to be real. Through investigators have learned much about how personality qualities and situational variations influence levels of fear and trust to affect who will confess/betray and who will stay silent.

The situation presented in Orange Is the New Black differed in that each prisoner makes a case for pursuing mutual interest but in opposite ways: Alex argues that they should both lie to protect themselves from the head of drug cartel while Piper believes they should tell the truth to avoid perjuring themselves over a drug lord who's likely to get put away where he cannot hurt them anyway. Each tries to persuade the other to see her own view and to act similarly. Both Alex and Piper flipflop from their stated intentions, with Alex admitting what she knows while Piper feigns ignorance, not in order to betray each other but because they each think they're doing the same as the other.

"I thought you were gonna tell the truth!" "And I thought you were gonna lie!"

Initially no overt rewards are offered. It's an avoidance-avoidance situation: Face either the cartel boss's wrath or a potential perjury charge. As an added complication and incentive to tell the truth, though, Alex receives an unexpected offer of immunity and early release from prison for testifying against the drug lord, and she accepts that deal which was not offered to Piper. Even though Piper feels betrayed by Alex's switch, Alex has not, in this instance, intended to hurt her. 

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