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United States vs. Soviet Union: Prisoner’s Dilemma

In the early Cold War, the race for nuclear supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union commenced. Through game theory principles, we can analyze the underlying motivations for both countries to pour trillions of dollars and resources into manufacturing nuclear weapons. The research paper by Scott Plous touches upon the Prisoner’s Dilemma and its connection to the arms race.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.29.41 PMThe nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union can be labeled as an interpretation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a situation showcasing why two players may act selfishly, even if acting selflessly appears to be in their best interests. For each country, there are two options: disarm or arm. From a naive point of view, the best overall outcome is for both countries to disarm, saving them resources while erasing the threat of warfare. However, such a decision is unlikely as we will see why.

Referring to the diagram, one can easily see that arming more weapons is a strictly dominant strategy; arming is the best strict response to every strategy of the opponent. If the opponent disarms and you arm, you will receive a payoff of 4 while the opponent receives a payoff of 1. In other words, you gain military superiority if you arm while your opponent disarms. Now, if the opponent arms, then you should arm as well. Arming while your opponent arms keeps both parties even, eliminating the risk of military inferiority. Thus, arming is the best strategy for both players. As such, both the USSR and US will naturally choose to arm, leading to a situation known as an arms race. Both countries “race” to produce weapons to remain even with each other.

Source: https://www.socialpsychology.org/pdf/jpr1993.pdf

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