Everyday Superrationality

You just can’t help yourself: whether it’s robbing banks or embezzling funds, crime is just your thing. Luckily, you have a partner who thinks just like you. Unluckily, you’ve both been apprehended by a team of crack detectives.

In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.
In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.

The Authorities make you an offer – and down the hall, you know your partner is hearing the same thing. Turn in your partner and you walk away scot-free while she’ll do five years behind bars. If you both rat out the other, you’ll get three years each. If you both keep quiet, you’ll both be out in six months.

She talks, you talk: She does three years, you do three years.
She talks, you stay quiet: She goes free, you do five years.
She keeps quiet, you keep quiet: She does six months, you do six months.
She keeps quiet, you talk: She does five years, you go free.

No matter what your partner chooses, it’s better for you to talk. So you’re going to tell the cops everything. Might as well – you have nothing to gain by staying quiet (did I mention that you don’t care about your partner at all? You suffer from Thought Experiment Induced Sociopathy. There’s a support group, they meet down by the trolley tracks.).

Anyway, you’re going to talk. And, you realize, she’ll do the exact same thing.

After all, you two think alike.

You two…think…alike.

…if you two really do think alike, then an outside observer would predict that both of you will make the same choice.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’s thinking the same thing right now.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’ll pick whatever you pick, even with no way to communicate, no matter what you pick. Because the process that’s driving your choice is the process that’s driving her choice.

…if you two really do think alike, you’re not choosing between talking and staying quiet – you’re choosing whether you’ll both do six months or five years.

…if you two really do think alike, then you can both be out of here in six months.

This is, of course, a silly toy example of a contrived situation that doesn’t actually happen to people ever.


Your friend has posted a kickstarter for a film Prisoners in Theory. You’d totally want to see this film if it came out! But do you want to back it? The Kickstarter says it if they get the money to make the movie, it will be released for free on YouTube. The other rewards for donating don’t interest you at all, you just care about the movie getting made. Realistically, you’re not going to donate more than $5. And what are the odds that that they Kickstarter will fall short by less than $5? Miniscule. And even if it is that close someone will pitch in the last few pennies. It’s definitely better for you to keep your money for other things and just wait and see whether or not the film gets funded. Either there will be enough like-minded fans to fund it, or there won’t be.

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Some liberties were taken with the source material.

“Like-minded” – the words echo in your head. Something seems off – are you sure you made the right decision?

Maybe if you want there to be media for you to enjoy, you want the sort of people who enjoy that media to also be the sort of people who tend to pay for that media. When artists and writers are considering what to work on, you want them to look at the sorts of things you would like to see and think “If I make that, I can probably pay rent this month.”

Philip J. Fry, game theory expertPhilip J. Fry, game theory expert

Be the systemic change you want to see in the world.


It’s Election Day, and you’re pretty anxious about the ballot initiative #42 to recognize gay marriages as corporations that can legally sell medical firearms to immigrants. Should you bother to look up your polling place, catch a bus over there, and wait in line in a loud, poorly-lit gymnasium that smells faintly of bored teenager? The odds of a single vote mattering are so miniscule as to be indistinguishable from zero. Elections practically never come down to a single vote – so you can confidently say that the outcome will be the same regardless.

You're not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.
You’re not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.

The electorate will make the same decision, with or without you. Rationally speaking, voting is a waste of time, and there are so many other things you could be doing that you value more than a 0.00000001% chance to sway an election.

If your vote counted extra – if you got 5,000 votes – well, then, maybe it would be worth doing. Lots of elections are within a 5,000 vote margin. But you can’t, so you don’t.

You wonder how many other people feel the same way.

You notice that politicians seems to cater to the irrational people who vote as a block even though each of them could be doing better things with their time.

Maybe you should go. Maybe all of you – all the individuals who are sufficiently similar – should.

The question you have to ask yourself is: Do you feel superrational?

Well, do you, punk?
Well, do you, punk?

4 thoughts on “Everyday Superrationality

    1. I have a philosophy I go by that’s similar to what you’re describing, and I call it N+1 behavior. I assume that whatever I do, other people will do. Of course that makes sense since I am so influential; but assuming people don’t know what I’m doing, I have to assume/hope that they will do what I will do.

      If I toss one little piece of litter on the ground, it’s practically insignificant. But I assume that if I toss a piece, so will everyone else that walks past. Now I imagine the immense pile of trash that results.

      1. That’s different to voting though. If I don’t vote I make the votes of everyone else participating *more* effective. If everyone decided not to vote then voting would become incredibly influential and people would start voting again until an equilibrium was hit.

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