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Raoul Lättemäe: Key to overcoming adversity easier to find than we think

Raoul Lättemäe.
Raoul Lättemäe. Source: Private library

It is not so difficult to sit down, take a look in the mirror, forget one's selfish desires and patronizing demands and think about the fact we will still need to live next to one another tomorrow and the day after. Unfortunately, our ability to make decisions that benefit society as a whole has deteriorated, Raoul Lättemäe writes.

The Estonian society finds itself in a trap of adversity and distrust, which has led to the general rate of mutually beneficial decisions falling. It is not a recent problem and the trend has been visible for at least a decade, starting long before the Covid crisis. It is also a global phenomenon as polarization is causing communities to fall out everywhere.

The reasons for the trend are myriad, including how social media platforms function where individually tailored news flow works to promote group thinking among people with similar interests and creates a distorted picture of the group's size and influence in society.

More important than the reasons, however, is how to behave as a society in a way that would make life better for everyone. The latter does not require a complete overview of the causes of polarization where an understanding of the principles of how to make decisions is worth more.

The so-called "prisoner's dilemma" from game theory describes situations where selfish behavior by individual agents results in a worse overall result for society. Mathematicians have analyzed strategies of how to achieve the best possible result for society in such a situation.

Unfortunately, the Estonian society has often opted for the wrong strategy, leading to a worse end result for all involved.

Prisoner's dilemma

The "prisoner's dilemma" describes situations where the best result requires cooperation and for selfish desires to be put aside. But this is difficult to do if the sides cannot sufficiently coordinate their cooperation or simply do not trust one another enough. Also because double-crossing the other side promises a far better personal result if the latter sticks to its end of the deal. Of course, this only works if the other side does keep its word. If both sides decide to double-cross the other, the result is worse for both than it would have been had they cooperated.

The dilemma was named after a classic example where two prisoners are taken in for questioning and must choose whether to keep quiet or rat the other one out. If both keep quiet, they will be sent to prison for a year. If one betrays the other, they will walk free, while the other prisoner gets three years. And if both decide to tell on the other side, both will get two years.

While both side's prison time is clearly smallest if they both stay silent, the prisoners are still sorely tempted to tell on one another. Both because of the chance to walk free and because blindly trusting the other prisoner leaves them vulnerable. If the other side decides to tell, the one that didn't ends up suffering.

That is why the likeliest outcome is that both sides will betray the other resulting in the maximum total punishment. A situation that could have been avoided by working together.

How to get out of the "prisoner's dilemma"?

The analogy of the "prisoner's dilemma" is clear to see in politics and the economy.

If everyone tries to maximize personal gain on the backdrop of universal distrust, the worst collective outcome will prevail. Still, mathematicians have over time come up with principles helping the sides make cooperation-oriented choices that ensure the best overall result.

To simplify, the key to achieving a better result is realizing that the sides will have to communicate and work together more than once. This leads to an important strategic principle. Namely that in a situation where one has to choose between pursuing narrow personal interests by letting the other side down and maintaining trust and cooperation, the fact that living next to and working with the other side will be necessary going forward needs to be kept in mind.

The fact that you will have to look the other side in the eye and work with them even after you betray them motivates both sides to work together. Even though it is difficult as it requires one to be vulnerable and trust the other side. It's simply necessary in the interests of a better tomorrow.

In mathematical simulations, working together usually yields the best result. Even if one side does decide to betray the other, it needs to be punished relatively quickly, while this still needs to be followed by forgiveness and a return to mutual cooperation.

What we can see as the dominating strategy in almost all walks of life today – lack of trust, being motivated by narrow and selfish interests and failing to forgive past transgressions – is only sensible as a last-resort option, according to mathematical simulations of the "prisoner's dilemma." For when it is clear beyond doubt that there will not be a tomorrow, in other words, that this is the last time the sides will meet.

Conclusions for Estonia

Looking at all of this, we might ask whether we are living as if there is no common tomorrow? Why are we unable to make far-reaching choices? Why aren't we working together every chance? Why are we unable to forgive and return to cooperation?

Instead of forgiveness and efforts to look for common ground, there are demands for the other side's full capitulation, patronizing attitudes, with no heed to the fact that both camps will have to go on living together tomorrow. Game theory does not show demanding the other side's surrender to be the best or even a functional strategy. On the contrary, it guarantees the worst possible result.

In other words, we are constantly resolving the "prisoner's dilemma" by using the worst possible strategy, culminating in the worst end result for everyone. It is not just the problem of a single field, individual parties or politicians. It is much more widespread and concerns everyone. Examples are plenty and more are cropping up all the time, both in politics and the private sector, the opposition and coalition, state companies and private businesses.

We can take the example of life or death filibustering in the parliament versus [the government] tying key bills to votes of confidence. Or the near-constant public skirmishes between sides to the ruling coalition, instead of the government working together in the service of a common goal.

An ordinary person in an ordinary job would hardly get far by sabotaging colleagues and periodically suggesting their boss go work as a clown in a circus. Yet, government press conferences offer just such examples.

Or the patronizing rhetoric ruling out any alternative views between political parties in general – wholly uncompromising and demanding the other side's unconditional surrender. The matter of teachers being on strike is also, in my view, less about money and more a result of the state, as the other side, making promises it has not kept.

As if there was no tomorrow and parties representing certain voters would not have to continue coexisting in the same society as people who voted for their opponents. Even though what we really need to do is find a way for all members of society to coexist, which requires teamwork, creating trust and making compromises.

Of course it is hard if the poor feel betrayed by the rich and vice versa, if conservatives feel they've been taken for a ride by the liberals and the other way around. But the best result for society is still ensured by mutual concession and cooperation.

The same problem exists in the private sector. I'm sure everyone has been handed an invoice which has made them reluctant to ever cross the service provider's door again because of the ridiculous sums charged, sums greater than what are asked in much wealthier countries.

Again, with no apparent thought to tomorrow and the seeming aim of cashing in as soon as possible. No wonder then that customers are gravitating away from domestic companies, even though it is clear that long-term customer relations between companies and people in Estonia would benefit both in the long run, not least in the form of new jobs.

Where do we go from here?

It seems to me that this has not always been the case. Mutual trust and effort in the name of a common goal were much more common after Estonia restored its independence. We had the courage to trust people and weren't as quick to betray one another.

Perhaps our past success has been based on the fact that we managed to resolve the "prisoner's dilemma" in a socially optimal way back then. There are few countries in the world that have matched Estonia's pace in catching up to wealthier countries as personal interests have usually triumphed over social benefit in such situations.

Perhaps we were helped by the two values that now find themselves forced to take a back seat: faith in a better tomorrow in a free Estonia and honest trust in the name of a common goal. They helped us come together in the name of a common goal.

Similar problems exist in other parts of the world, with examples easy enough to find. How Donald Trump supporters see America and the situation in Vladimir Putin's Russia are clear examples of selfish personal interests that will cause everyone to lose, including the U.S. and Russia.

But be that as it may for the rest of the world, I believe Estonia has enough wisdom and potential to be more reasonable. We have no credible reason not to deploy the best strategy for the "prisoner's dilemma."

It is not so difficult to sit down, take a look in the mirror, forget one's selfish desires and patronizing demands and think about the fact we will still need to live next to one another tomorrow and the day after. And then ask ourselves where our cooperation is needed most. How to learn to work together honestly and trustingly again to make sure everyone would have it better in tomorrow's society.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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