The Prisoner’s Dilemma & That Toilet In Your Office

Imagine you’ve had an early start to your day. And as an extension, you need to take care of your “business” and make a “long call” in the office washroom. You walk in, and you scan the place. The washroom isn’t crowded… Just a few folks and cleaners loitering around… You proceed to turn the latch and open the door to the first cubicle on your left. There’s water on the floor. You try the next one. Water on the floor and used tissue scattered all over. The third cubicle is a little clean but there’s no tissue roll. Not cool. Two cubicles on the other side are occupied. Someone comes out of the last cubicle at the far end on the other side and you know you won’t be able to use it till the seat is a little less… Warm… You finally find a cubicle you can use; it’s relatively clean, there’s tissue roll, and no vestiges of anyone having used it that morning. You thank your stars and rush in. You take care of your “business.” Now you’re faced with a slightly complex problem. Do you ensure that you throw the used tissue in the bin on your left? Is it worth the extra effort, when you know that the same cubicle will be a mess later in the day? And that the person who walks in after you will, in all probability, litter the floor and keep it that way for those who use it after him? After all, you only have to make one “long call” in the day, and if you have to make another one tomorrow, the toilets will be cleaned overnight by housekeeping anyway. So, should you bother? To those who are offended by my temerity to suggest that we are actually disgusting enough to consider these calculations, I say this… Look at the state of the washrooms in your office in the morning, at noon and in the evening.

The point, I’m trying to make is this: why is it that we are able to maintain some sort of hygiene and cleanliness when it comes to the toilets and washrooms in our homes and unable to do so in office? Why is it that the executive washrooms are much better maintained (and I’m not talking about the efficacy of the cleaning crew here) than the ones for the other folks? What is it that drives this change in behavior? Viswanathan Raghunathan in his book, Games Indians Play, makes an interesting case for using game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma to answer questions like why we are the way we are. And I thought it might make an interesting case to apply the same concepts of game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma to a situation all of us face at some point of time in our offices.

The prisoner’s dilemma, in short, is a problem where two rational and calculating people are accused of a crime and are being interrogated in two separate rooms. Both the accused are offered the following terms by the interrogator:

  • If one “squeals” on the other and the other doesn’t, the “squealer” will be set free and the other accused will spend five years in prison.
  • If both the accused “squeal” on each other, both will be incarcerated for four years.
  • If both the accused remain defiant and do not “squeal,” both will serve only two years.

Payoff Matrix


As rational and intelligent beings, both the accused arrive at the conclusion that the best strategy when faced with this dilemma would be to squeal on the other; this, however, leads to a squeal-squeal situation and earns both the accused four years in prison, when clearly not squealing would have earned the two only half the punishment.

When I litter the toilet in the office, I am taking what Raghunathan describes as a “rational squeal” decision; I am avoiding the trouble of trying to keep it clean and maximizing the satisfaction I derive out of the experience. But the others who use the cubicle after me are as rational and calculating as I am; using an unclean cubicle leaves them with no choice but to keep it that way and avoid the trouble of disposing the tissues in the bin. And by the end of the day, you have a cubicle with water on the floor and wads of used tissue scattered ever where. It’s the squeal-squeal situation that the two accused in the prisoner’s dilemma are faced with, where each stakeholder attempts to maximize the satisfaction points that he derives from the situation, collectively making everyone using that cubicle worse off, when clearly not “squealing” or making an attempt to keep the cubicle clean would be in the best interests of everyone involved.

The book goes on to cite a lot of other examples, but makes a very valid point that “a little bit of self-regulation would go a long way in maximizing satisfaction and profit for all involved.” And housekeeping wouldn’t have to put up signs showing us how it’s supposed to be done…

PS: The prisoner’s dilemma has a lot of other interesting real-world applications which include economics, politics and business and can be found on the internet. The book itself is a wonderful take on using game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma to attempt an answer to the question of why we are the way we are. V. Raghunathan is a well-known name in academic and corporate circles and a brief biography can be found here. This post draws heavily from his work and builds on one of the examples he cites in his book about unclean toilets, which he mentions were a concern to Herzberg (remember your OB class in B-school?) as well.


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