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Subject: Prisoner's Dilemma applied to performance enhancements in sport. rss

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Mark Finch
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In this article published in Wired, Bruce Schneier (reknowned info-security professional) discusses drug testing in sports as a security problem. It's a short and interesting read in its own right, but I commend it to Chit Chat due to the point he makes about the decision to take performance-enhancing stimulants as being a classic Prisoner's Dilemma.

The relevant paragraph:

Infosec Grand Ambassador Bruce wrote:

Consider for example competing athletes Alice and Bob, who are individually deciding whether to take drugs or not. Alice thinks:

If Bob doesn't take any drugs, then it will be in my best interest to take them. They will give me a performance edge against Bob. I have a better chance of winning.

Similarly, if Bob takes drugs, it's also in my interest to agree to take them. At least that way Bob won't have an advantage over me.

So even though I have no control over what Bob chooses to do, taking drugs gives me the better outcome, regardless of his action.

Unfortunately, Bob goes through exactly the same analysis. As a result, they both take performance-enhancing drugs and neither has the advantage over the other. If they could just trust each other, they could refrain from taking the drugs and maintain the same non-advantage status, without any legal or physical danger.


So, Schneier is saying that doping is the strictly dominant strategy. But presumably the analysis is incomplete because it makes no reference to the risk of detection, which (I assume) must alter the nature of the dilemma - is that right? Is this a faulty comparison?

Maths geeks/Game theorists/anyone with an opinion - what say you?
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Yes, it's an example of a prisoner's dilemma. But that's really nothing special. You make the choice of cooperating for the greater good or defecting for your own good every day.

Whenever you take the time and effort of walking to a trash can instead of throwing your rubbish on the street, you're cooperating. It isn't likely that that specific piece of trash would bother you in the future, and it isn't likely that your decision influences what everyone else does with their trash. But you do it because you'd rather live in a world where everybody gets rid of their garbage in a proper manner than in one where people don't.

Whenever you turn up the music because your neighbor always plays his music so loud you can't hear your own, you're defecting in an iterated prisoner's dilemma. Many neighbor disputes start with small complaints, but they escalate because neighbor A chooses to defect because neighbor B does the same.
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MFinch wrote:
So, Schneier is saying that doping is the strictly dominant strategy. But presumably the analysis is incomplete because it makes no reference to the risk of detection, which (I assume) must alter the nature of the dilemma - is that right? Is this a faulty comparison?

It assumes taking drugs is a net positive, even with the risk of detection and other dangers. If you would put a number on it, I don't think it matters what factors determine that number; if it's positive, it's positive.
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Matt B
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The decision payoffs are more in the form of probability distributions than single values. If you take the expected value of the probability distributions, it will probably look like a prisoner's dilemma, but it depends how strong the penalties are and how good the testing is, as well as maybe a few smaller factors.

If the testing and penalties are strong enough, then the expected value of doping will be less than (or only slightly better than) the expected value of not doping, and the prisoner's dilemma would cease to exist.
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Andrew Brannan
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MFinch wrote:


So, Schneier is saying that doping is the strictly dominant strategy. But presumably the analysis is incomplete because it makes no reference to the risk of detection, which (I assume) must alter the nature of the dilemma - is that right? Is this a faulty comparison?

Maths geeks/Game theorists/anyone with an opinion - what say you?


Nope, the benefits of doping far outweigh the risks. Top athletic performers can land multi-million dollar endorsement deals that far outstrip their salaries. While the endorsement deals can be cancelled once doping is detected, nobody has gone after past payments thus far. While individual awards can be stripped from dopers, nobody thus far has gone back and negated postseason victories from teams with dopers, and those also carry a hefty cash benefit.

Look at Lance Armstrong, who has faced probably the harshest penalties thus far. None of the past money he earned in endorsements and speaking deals has been pulled, and there are still many people who say he never doped. Yes, he's in disgrace now, but in a few years he'll probably have a book out and he'll be back to making a good amount of money.
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Jonny Lawless
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abrannan wrote:
MFinch wrote:


So, Schneier is saying that doping is the strictly dominant strategy. But presumably the analysis is incomplete because it makes no reference to the risk of detection, which (I assume) must alter the nature of the dilemma - is that right? Is this a faulty comparison?

Maths geeks/Game theorists/anyone with an opinion - what say you?


Nope, the benefits of doping far outweigh the risks. Top athletic performers can land multi-million dollar endorsement deals that far outstrip their salaries. While the endorsement deals can be cancelled once doping is detected, nobody has gone after past payments thus far. While individual awards can be stripped from dopers, nobody thus far has gone back and negated postseason victories from teams with dopers, and those also carry a hefty cash benefit.

Look at Lance Armstrong, who has faced probably the harshest penalties thus far. None of the past money he earned in endorsements and speaking deals has been pulled, and there are still many people who say he never doped. Yes, he's in disgrace now, but in a few years he'll probably have a book out and he'll be back to making a good amount of money.



You're assuming the only way people measure benefits is monetarily.
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Andrew Brannan
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jonnylawless wrote:



You're assuming the only way people measure benefits is monetarily.


No, I assume the only reason people dope is for monetary gain via enhanced performance. A subtle, but significant difference.
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Andy Andersen
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Fortunately I ceased to be an athlete several years ago and don't have this dilemma to think about.
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Geeky McGeekface
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abrannan wrote:
jonnylawless wrote:

You're assuming the only way people measure benefits is monetarily.

No, I assume the only reason people dope is for monetary gain via enhanced performance. A subtle, but significant difference.

I suspect that in the majority of cases, neither is true. I think that most athletes who use so-called PEDs do so because:

a) they've been trained from an early age to make whatever sacrifice is necessary for them to be as good as they can be; and

b) they've also been trained to use whatever means are necessary to gain any competitive edge they can get.

The monetary gains will come with success, but I think the driving force for most athletes comes from the desire to be the best.
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