I have been reading lately, about the differences between mathematical models of behavior and real human behavior. So, I decided to try on Mechanical Turk the classical game theory model of Prisoner's Dilemma. (See also Brendan's nice explanations and diagrams if you have never been exposed to game theory before.)

From Wikipedia:

In its classical form, the prisoner's dilemma ("PD") is presented as follows:Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?If we assume that each player cares only about minimizing his or her own time in jail, then the prisoner's dilemma forms a non-zero-sum game in which two players may each cooperate with or defect from (betray) the other player. In this game, as in all game theory, the only concern of each individual player (prisoner) is maximizing his or her own payoff, without any concern for the other player's payoff. The unique equilibrium for this game is a Pareto-suboptimal solution, that is, rational choice leads the two players to both play defect, even though each player's individual reward would be greater if they both played cooperatively.

My first attempt was to post to Mechanical Turk this dilemma in a setting of the following game:

You are playing a game together with a stranger. Each of you have two choices to play: "trust" or "cheat".

- If both of you play "trust", you win \$30,000 each.
- If both of you play "cheat", you get \$10,000 each.
- If one player plays "trust" and the other plays "cheat", then the player that played "cheat" gets \$50,000 and the player that played "trust" gets \$0.
You cannot communicate during the game, and CANNOT see the final action of the other player. Both actions will be revealed simultaneously.What would you play? "Cheat" or "Trust"?

Basic game theory predicts that the participants will choose "cheat" resulting in a suboptimal equilibrium. However, participants on Mechanical Turk did not behave like that. Instead, 48 out of the 100 participants decided to play "trust", which is above the 33% observed in the lab experiments of (Shafir and Tversky, 1992).

Next, I wanted to make the experiment more realistic. Would anything change if instead of playing an imaginary game, I promised actual monetary benefits to the participants? So, I modified the game, and asked the participants to play against each other. Here is the revised task description.

You are playing a game against another Turker. Your action here will be matched with an action of another Mechanical Turk worker.Each of you have two choices to play: "trust" or "cheat".

- If both of you play "trust", you both get a bonus of \$0.30.
- If both of you play "cheat", you both get a bonus of \$0.10.
- If one Turker plays "trust" and the other plays "cheat", then the Turker that played "cheat" gets a bonus of \$0.50 and the Turker that played "trust" gets nothing.
What is your action? "Cheat" or "Trust"?

I asked 120 participants to play the game, paying just 1 cent for the participation. Interestingly enough, I had a perfect split in the results. 60 Turkers decided to cheat, and 60 Turkers decided to cheat. The final result was 20 pairs of trust-trust, 20 pairs of cheat-cheat, and 20 pairs of cheat-trust.

In other words, the theory prediction that people will be locked in a non-optimal equilibrium was not correct, neither in the "imaginary" game, nor in the case where the workers had to gain some actually monetary benefit.

Finally, I decided to change the payoff matrix, and replicate the structure of the TV game show "Friend or Foe". There, participants get \$50K each if they cooperate, \$0 if they do not, and if one chooses trust and the other cheat, the "cheat" gets \$100K and the "trust" gets \$0.

You are playing a game together with a stranger.Each of you have two choices to play: "trust" or "cheat".

- If both of you play "trust", you both win \$50,000.

- If both of you play "cheat", you both get \$0.

- If one player plays "trust" and the other plays "cheat", then the player that played "cheat" gets \$100,000 and the player that played "trust" gets \$0.

You cannot communicate during the game, and CANNOT see the final action of the other player. Both actions will be revealed simultaneously.What would you play? "Cheat" or "Trust"?

Interestingly enough, in this setting

**ALL 100 players ended up playing "trust"**, which was quite different from the previous game and from the behavior of the players in the TV show, where, in almost 25% of the played games, both players chose "cheat" ending up with \$0, and in 25% of the games the players collaborated and played "trust" getting \$50K each.
So, in my final attempt, I asked Turkers to play this "Friend of Foe" game, having monetary incentives. Here is the task that I posted on Mechanical Turk.

You are playing a game against another Turker. Your action here will be matched with an action of another Mechanical Turk worker.Each of you have two choices to play: "trust" or "cheat".

- If both of you play "trust", you both get a bonus of \$0.50.
- If both of you play "cheat", you both get \$0.
- If one Turker plays "trust" and the other plays "cheat", then the Turker that played "cheat" gets a bonus of \$1.00 and the Turker that played "trust" gets nothing.
What is your action? "Cheat" or "Trust"?

In this game, 33% of the users decided to cheat, resulting in 6/50 games where both players got nothing, 23/50 games where both players got a 50 cent bonus, and 21/50 games where one player got $1 and the other player got nothing.

I found the difference in behavior between the imaginary game and the actual one to be pretty interesting. Also, the deviation from the predictions of the game-theoretic model is striking.

Although I am not the first to actually observe that, this deviation got me wondering: Why do we use elaborate game theory models for modeling user behavior, when not even the simplest such models do not correspond to reality? How can someone take seriously the concept of an equilibrium when a game, introduced in the intro chapter of every game theory textbook, simply does not correspond to reality? Do we really understand the limitations of our tools, or mathematical and analytic elegance end up being more important than reality?