Austen Crowder

ENDA and the LGBT Prisoner's Dilemma

Filed By Austen Crowder | April 27, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: GetEqual, HRC, LGBT policy, politicians, prisoner's dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilemma acts as one of the cornerstones of modern game theory, and its usefulness in discussion cooperation never ceases to amaze me. I wanted to drag it out on the floor today, considering our recent actions on ENDA, DADT, and same-sex marriage, and use the game to explain why GetEQUAL is being so successful.prisoner-suing-god.jpg

The game is a test of cooperation and defection. In a round, two parties are given the option to defect or cooperate. If one player defects while the other cooperates, the defector receives a large reward and the cooperator receives a large punishment. If both cooperate, both players receive a small reward. If they both defect, they both receive moderate punishment, but far less punishment than would be inflicted by cooperating while the other player defected. In most scenarios the game is played over a random number of turns, encouraging players to develop strategies over a period of time.

What happens when we apply Prisoner's Dilemma to the LGBT political situation? More after the jump:

There are a few key points about this experiment that apply to the LGBT lobby as it stands today:

  • if a player uses a "nice," always-cooperate strategy, they will always lose; it is mathematically impossible to gain more points than your opponent.
  • Players' approach PD based on their previous experiences with people. People who have never dealt with trust issues will often choose to cooperate at a higher incidence
  • 40% of human players choose to cooperate.
  • Rats, when taught to play the game, adopt similar strategies to their human counterparts. (Not important, but certainly interesting!)

Politics can be a complicated tangle of conflicts, I admit, but when we tear the respective situations down to their most basic levels we find ourselves in a situation of one-on-one trust problems. I'd like to paint a few of these dilemmas in a simplified, straightforward, Prisoner's Dilemma format, hoping that by keeping things simple we can get at some bigger ideas. I must note here that I do not have a degree in Game Theory, nor can I claim that these charts are accurate in any way: I just thought it was a neat way to envision the cooperation/defection problems we're faced with right now.

The "Nice" HRC Strategy


Let's face it: the HRC is in the business of making nice with politicians. They can't afford to leave the good graces of the DNC for fear of losing their inside ties to the Washington elite. They can't help themselves in this capacity; without those powerful audiences, and without the dollars to lobby the representatives (read: hand out lollipops when they do good things), they have no platform. Looking to the HRC for leadership in hard-line stances is like looking to a machinist for help with a broken leg: they just don't play well with the grassroots.

This "always nice" strategy has the side effect of assuring that HRC will never manage to "beat" a politician; whereas HRC is concerned with always cooperating, the politician knows that an occasional defection will rarely ever end with mud on their face. Even Obama, who bold-face lied to the community about DADT (Link to the whole "we knew it wasn't going to happen" bit) knows that the occasional defect from LGBT issues costs him little at the polls, and HRC really has nobody else to lie in bed with at this time.

The Civil-Disobedience GetEQUAL Method


GetEQUAL acts as sort of a strategic opposite to the HRC. Where HRC is concerned with cooperating, GetEQUAL is interested in defection. No matter the platform of their opponents, defection leads to a favorable result: those who cooperate are spurred to action, and those who defect share in GetEQUAL's punishment - while they go to jail, their target members of congress take hits in the PR department. Either way the vote goes, the LGBT movement and agenda gets press. As they say in the business: "no press is bad press."

However, the "always defect" strategy exacts a huge price on those who participate, both on the side of the policymaker and the protester. LGBT protesters go to jail, and supportive policymakers can be made callus to our issues because of the constant threat of retaliation.

Our Exclusion from Obama's 2010 Campaign Videos


Here's where the PD method of looking at cooperation conflicts gets interesting. Obama, faced with increasing pressure to stand behind his word, is stuck in a difficult situation. If he continues to defect in his current capacity (We'll get to you in time!), he faces extraordinary pressure from our community to make good on our agenda. If he defects, however, and writes us off his campaign materials, he has effectively made the decision to defect; we lose because our agenda is no longer on the table, and he loses because we'll no longer be welcome as contributors. However, the kicker is that Obama actually loses less by writing us off than simply continuing his peacemaking platitudes.

Mind you, I feel that the GetEQUAL protests are absolutely necessary to push policy on the hill, and that the community is getting behind withholding support until he makes good on promises is a key part of our strategy. Looking at it from the eyes of a politically-minded political leader facing a potential bloodbath at the polls, though, I can certainly see where writing off pink dollars could offer political cover in the long run. Either way, Obama's going to lose. Why not lose in the smallest way possible?

Then again, writing us off might only make us louder. We shall see.

Trans Issues in LGBT Legislation

I couldn't help throwing this dilemma in for consideration. Unlike the previous examples, this game is sometimes only iterative until someone achieves a victory condition. I think this clearly illustrates trans folk's distrust of mainstream orgs, and of promises that say "We'll come back for you later, honest!"


There are two major things to note here. One, the game is skewed in favor of LGB folk: even if trans people defect there is no political scenario that would grant trans-specific protections without sexual orientation. However, we have proven time and time again that LGB protections can come without gender identity. (The ethics and validity of such a decision, however, have been pounded into the dirt here many times before.) Two, and far more important to note, is that this game has victory conditions that end the cooperation game entirely: namely, if one group gains protections without the other, a contingency of said group will stop lobbying for protections for the other half of the group. "I got mine," taken to its logical conclusion.

Such was the case in New York, where gender identity is 14 years removed form sexual orientation in terms of protections, and in MA, whose governor is actively engaged in killing trans protections in their legislature, despite the fact that their laws for sexual orientation are among the most fair in the country. The "We'll come back for you" concept doesn't even exist in the world of pure game theory, and it's proven accurate in advocacy so far.

This chart makes one thing clear: if ENDA goes through markup and turns up and loses its trans protections, it is in the trans community's best interests to scuttle the bill. half-a-loaf protections rarely ever bear fruit for us.

Putting It All Together

Long-term, when the Prisoner's Dilemma is played indefinitely, there is only one valid solution: cooperation, except when its necessary to punish defectors. We are in the punishment part of that process, with HRC and the Democratic party. Time will tell if we'll come out ahead on the other side.

The rats I mentioned above, by the by, best figured out this solution when fed, which sure seems to illustrate the current state of the LGBT movement:

The authors of the PLoS study noted that when experimenters observed low cooperation rates, the animals had been food deprived. Fully satiated rats, on the other hand, freely cooperated and easily solved the Prisoner's Dilemma. These results show that the primordial drive for food in a hungry animal simply clouds judgment.

A political agenda with little success, facing roadblocks at every turn, and patience wearing thin? Yep. It certainly explains the sudden uptick of defection - which, in reality, is necessary to get anything done with LGBT issues.

This by no means is a catch-all theory for our present political situation, but the simple models do spur some different thoughts, eh?

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Never thought to apply GT to this -- awesome job :D

I love applying GT to pretty much anything. It's how I win pretty much every negotiation board game I play; when you play the negotiation game knowing the mathematically best answer for a situation, you get a clear picture of what's worth leveraging and what's worth giving away.

In other news: my friends hate playing "Settlers of Catan" with me. ;)

One little nitpick: The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which protects gays and lesbian but not transpeople was passed into law in New York in 2002. That's 8 years, not 14.

Oops, my bad. I heard the "14" number somewhere along the way and just assumed. Serves me right for writing with a fever! :)

Austen have you ever read "Rules for Radicals" by Saul Alinsky? It is a concise yet brilliant work.

No, but I've seen it quoted here on multiple occasions. It has been added to my book list.

That was the first thought in my head too, Deena.

Austen, you can borrow my copy if you'd like. It's a personal favorite.

Marja Erwin | April 27, 2010 10:57 PM

I'm sorry. I'm familiar with the prisoner's dilemma, but I'm not always clear on your argument. In particular I'm not sure how you are categorizing various strategies into cooperation and defection, and how you are categorizing the results.

A very interesting application of the classic negotiation strategy game. Excellent thinking! A few questions, though. In the first table, in the box for HRC defects and Legislature cooperates, why is the result "legislation not passed"? Isn't passage of legislation the measure of "cooperation" for the legislature?

lacharlie13 | April 28, 2010 5:34 PM

There are several games which model real world situations fairly well. PD can be solved by tit-for-tat strategies, but this doesn't work for other games like Chicken and Battle of the Sexes. [email me and I will send you a paper about current game/drama theory [lol]