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Performance-Enhancing Drugs and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Coming from a region in California where we take high school sports seriously, I definitely understood how intense the culture was as I was on the swim team and swam competitively as well. A clear memory I have from high school is when one of my friends that also swam competitively tested positive for a banned substance. With questions flooding my head at the time, I was both disappointed and taken aback that he would go to such far lengths to gain an advantage. Looking back at it now, I realize that this very scenario can be tied to game theory, which inspired me to delve into the usage of performance-enhancing drugs in sports and explore how the prisoner’s dilemma relates to this.

In terms of professional sports, the highest level of competition for an athlete, it is not surprising when scandals regarding doping occur as getting away with a winning edge can be something that is very rewarding. My article of choice connects such uses of drugs with the classic scenario of the prisoner’s dilemma. To elaborate, the prisoner’s dilemma is an example of a game in game theory that shows how cooperation and competition might clash in decision-making. It is the idea that when two individuals act out of their own self-interest, it will not produce the optimal outcome and as a result, these people find themselves in a worse situation than if they had just cooperated with each other. The article relates this concept to athletes using performance-enhancing drugs by proposing how the prisoner’s dilemma would apply in a hypothetical situation. For example, if there are two athletes (let’s call them Bob and Joe) and Bob doesn’t take the drugs, if Joe takes it, he now has an advantage. If Bob decides to take the drugs, Joe should also take the drug because then he would be on equal footing with Bob. This also works in reverse and goes to show that taking the drug is the best strategy.

As my article puts it, it would be nice to live in a world where all professional athletes refrained from using performance-enhancing drugs in sports. The issue is that when no one uses these drugs, an individual athlete may be tempted to use them in order to perform better than everyone else (which is choosing to cheat as displayed in the diagram above). This then leads everyone to also take performance-enhancing drugs, which creates this scenario where any athlete who decides not to take these drugs suffers from a competitive disadvantage. The diagram captures the very foundation of the prisoner’s dilemma in a real-world scenario because in reality, drug regulation testing exists and will punish those who are caught. Therefore, although cheating would be a best response to the other person’s choice, if both people don’t choose to cooperate with the rules and get caught, the punishment is worse than if both just followed proper etiquette. This is why in the real-world, cheating through doping is not all that common because athletes understand there is always that risk of being caught and that it may simply not be worth it.





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October 2020