The Nice Guy That Finishes First! – The Prisoner’s Dilemma

In our everyday world we know the expression “Nice guys finish last” and it’s closely tied to how we as individuals interact with others within the confines of society. Sure, there are rules and etiquettes that guide us toward doing the right thing, but often we find ourselves outmatched by other human competition that plays unfair and thus manages to get ahead of the ones that are fair.

I would now like to turn your attention toward an eye-opening experiment. It’s called The Prisoner’s Dilemma and it may just be what you, the nice guy, were looking for if you felt the need for some reassurance that playing by the rules, being ethical and rational will get you ahead.


In this experiment we have two people that each have a set of two cards in their hands: One has Cooperate written on it and the other Defect. There are multiple rounds where each of the two people must place only one of the two cards face-down (without the other person knowing what it is). Hence, there exist multiple outcomes to each round. For every situation we offer a reward, as such:

  • Both players choose Cooperate – They both win $300
  • Both players choose Defect – They both lose $10
  • If one plays Defect and the other Cooperate -> The one who defected wins $500 and the one who cooperated loses $100

At this very point you are maybe wondering how could people that are nice and cooperate finish first, or in other words win. Surely the most amount of money is gained from screwing your opponent over by defecting and thus winning $500 (not to mention that you make him lose a lot of money as well).

Well let’s analyze it like this: If I were to play this game with you and I would play Defect the best option for you (in a monetary/mathematical term) would be to play Defect as well, because you would lose only $10, as opposed to your only other option which would have cost you $100.

Let’s say this time I play Cooperate, but for you the same monetary/mathematical option would remain viable – play Defect. Why? Because you win $500 and I lose $100. Your other option would be to have Cooperated as well, but that would mean that you would only get $300 and I would get the same amount. You’re surely much more interested in the $500, right?

So from the above two examples we can state that for ‘you’ the best logical move would be to play Defect, because that will earn you the most amount of money. But here is where the individual has to take a step back and think about the other individuals in the equation. You are not the only intelligent person trying to “win” in society. What would happen if I would also follow this logic when playing this game?

Take the same you and I from the previous example and let’s assume that we both know that playing Defect would constitute in the “smartest” move in order to get money. What would we get? Well if we both play Defect over and over again we would both lose $10 again and again. So it may be the smartest move when you consider it from one individual’s standpoint, but it does not work between multiple individuals who share the same knowledge.

If we have simply Cooperated we could have both won $300 instead of losing $10.


The link to “nice guys” as I have mentioned is linked to analysis done by sever scientist that calculated the total amount of money that different people scored during the experiment. People that generally are considered nice mostly started by cooperating, they were forgiving when others were trying to defect on them and were non-envious when the opponent also won money. These cooperative people scored higher than the ones that were trying to be devious and tricky defecting more often.

So the bottom line that the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us is that cooperating with other members of society instead of trying to trick them for your own gain will have great benefits in the long run. We can see how society is actually a reflection of nature (as we have evolved from it): we see a bird that helps remove parasites from hard to reach areas of another bird and thus they both benefit by living in a helpful community, but if they do not cooperate they are easily rejected and will not receive help in the future.

From a human’s standpoint this example remains the same. While you may feel that some cutthroat or envious people may get the best of you temporarily, science shows that in the long run the persons that are altruistic and nice will definitely get ahead in life. Evolution even confers that individuals with nice behavior are more likely to integrate into society and have offsprings.






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