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Lost’s Moments Of Clarity And The Prisoners’ Dilemma

If the negotiated resolution of disputes is all about values; personal narratives; and, collaborative problem solving, the televised-negotiated-resolution-Bible is Lost, which ended a six-year run last night in a series of spiritual awakenings for each of the major characters.

I’m addicted to something that doesn’t exist.  ~  William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

This is where those sensible folks who have never been addicted to narrative nor worshiped at the altar of character development check out of the post.  Please do return.

Live Together, Die Alone

Your plane crashes on a desert island.  Your fellow survivors are, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote in Aristotle, already “in the thick of it.”

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unsolders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall
too much to name, too much to think about.

Where are you?  Are there “others” on the island who would do your newborn society harm?  How will resources be distributed?  Who, if anyone, is fit and willing, to lead? Is there food and drinking water?  Will some members of your community begin to hoard food for themselves?  Can anyone track, hunt, kill and bar-b-q the wild boars that roam the island?  Who will settle disputes?  Who will betray you and who defend you?

And when will you be rescued?

Now that we know that the island is the spiritual place – the dreamworld – the unconscious – where the survivors are challenged by inner and outer demons and given the chance to experience the healing grace inside every human heart – the mysteries need never be solved and the “truth” need never be revealed.   The “others” and the Dharma initiative and Jacob; the hydrogen bomb and the time travel; are all just the busy work against which the characters will achieve, or fall short, of their human and spiritual potential.

Yet, as Christian Shepard says at series’ end – all of your experiences were real, Jack.

“Lost” as the Prisoners’ Dilemma

The first two seasons of Lost were all about the Prisoners’ Dilemma – is it better to cooperate with our fellows or to betray them?  And which makes us happier?

As I explain in “K is for Kin” in the upcoming ABC’s of Conflict Resolution,

If a propensity for physical violence were the most prominent human characteristic, we surely would have wiped ourselves off the face of the earth by now. That we haven’t speaks to something even deeper within us than our collective desire to dominate others and control all available resources for our own benefit. Let’s take a deep breath and pause to remember that despite our sorry history of armed conflict, we also managed to land men on the moon, eradicate or drastically reduce a wide array of infectious diseases, end legalized racial segregation, grant women the right to vote in nearly every country in the world, and build civilizations that, for all their flaws, exhibit nearly continuous progress from barbarity to self-governance.

At the local level, most of us stop at red lights; wait patiently in line at the grocery store; refrain from hitting one another when angry; stay off other people’s property unless invited; play organized sports according to rules laid down decades ago; sit quietly through lectures, plays and movies; arrive at work on time; and, pay for what we gather in retail stores to feed and clothe our families. In extremis we not only behave ourselves, we often act heroically – putting our own lives in danger to save those of others – even when they are strangers to us. Firemen enter burning buildings; doctors and nurses risk their own health tending the well-being of others; police officers chase men with guns and enter abandoned buildings even when doing so is likely to get them injured or killed; and a great number of us would reflexively dash out into a street to save someone else’s child from being run over by a truck.

If each of us has decided to answer to the higher angels of our human nature, how might we convince our fellows to do the same? Once again, we turn to the evolutionary biologists for help.

In 1984, Professor Robert Axelrod organized a world-wide tournament among computer programmers. He issued an invitation seeking winning computer strategies for a game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma poses a problem involving trust, self-seeking and collaboration that economists use to show why people often fail to cooperate even if it is in both of their best interests to do so.

The game begins its life as the story of a human dilemma. Two suspects are arrested by the police for burglary. Because the police do not have sufficient evidence to convict either suspect, they can only secure a conviction if they are able to convince at least one of the two to confess the crime and implicate his partner. To coax the suspects to confess, the police offer each one the same deal. If either one of the two accused individuals testifies against his partner, he will be freed and his partner will receive a ten-year sentence. If both confess and testify against one another, each will receive a five-year sentence. If both remain silent, they will be sentenced to only six months in jail. These offers are made to the suspects in separate rooms.

The optimal choice for both partners in crime is to cooperate with one another by remaining silent. If they do so, each will earn only a six-month jail sentence. The optimal solution for the individual suspect is to “rat out” his partner, securing his own freedom. Because neither partner is capable of predicting the other’s choice the only “rational” decision is mutual betrayal.

To learn the best means of resolving this dilemma, Professor Axelrod and others like him engaged their research subjects in repeated rounds – or “iterations” – of the game. Because our community life requires us to daily choose between cooperation and generosity on the one hand, and independence and selfishness on the other, this iterated prisoner’s dilemma best represented conflicts among our fellows in everyday life. Of the fifty iterated Prisoner Dilemma programs submitted to Professor Axelrod, one – named Tit for Tat – was the clear winner. Tit for Tat began each round of play with each new player by cooperating. If cooperative play was met with betrayal, Tit for Tat retaliated on the next occasion it “met” the non-cooperative gamer. Only if that program returned to cooperation would Tit for Tat do the same. Those programs that were designed to cooperate haphazardly or to continue cooperating in the face of betrayal, were repeatedly victimized.

Those programs that chronically betrayed their fellow gamers, became locked in escalating spirals of retaliatory play. Only Tit for Tat behaved the way evolutionary biologists believe successful human survivors played the game of life. Those survivors were pre-disposed to cooperate with their fellows in at least some circumstances – circumstances in which their families or “kin” were threatened. Those inclined to betray did not, however, die out completely. To bring disreputable players back into the cooperative endeavors that would assure the family’s survival, it was necessary for punishments to be meted out. Banishment or penalties of death for non-cooperative players were options except under extreme circumstances. To survive, families needed “all hands on deck.” The “fittest” to survive, like the winning Tit for Tat computer program, were quickly forgave as soon as punishment brought uncooperative family members back into line.

We appear to be hard-wired for cooperation in the same way Tit for Tat was programmed for success. When research subjects played the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma while attached to equipment monitoring brain activity, the brains of those who were cooperating with one another lit up like pinball machines. Not only did the cooperators win more total points for cooperation than did the betrayers, they were happier whether they were winning or not. As the neuroscientists discovered, when we cooperate, the neurochemical that gives us pleasure – dopamine – is released. At the same time that the cooperators’ brains were being bathed in the warm glow of dopamine, their impulse inhibition areas were activated, helping them resist the lure of self-seeking.

Our evolutionary history has created us to be a “band of brothers” – a human family that places the well-being of the tribe on a higher level than anyone’s “personal best.” If family members betray us (and they will) we doom our effort to secure compliance if we fail to retaliate. A sharp slap on the wrist or even expressed disapproval (the powerful shock of shaming) is usually sufficient to bring miscreants back into line. To optimize the benefits to be gained by cooperation among the greatest number of family members, we must be quick to forgive when our retaliatory actions bear fruit.

As I became more and more involved in the complexities of the Lost narrative, the through line for me was always the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  The survivors lied about their motives.  They betrayed one another.  They remained silent when speaking might have saved them.  They demonized “the others” only to find that demons inhabited their own hearts as well.  When the squabbling amongst them threatened to pull them apart, another threat from “the others” or the wild boars or the deadly black smoke or the hydrogen bomb, drew them back together.  And over time, they became kin.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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