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The Trap

One of the key themes from The Trap that stood out and stayed with me after finishing the entire three-hour program was an idea discussed throughout the first segment, “Fuck You Buddy”. In this segment, the program’s exploration of game theory, and the work of the mathematician John Nash (for the first part of an interesting PBS documentary about Nash called A Brilliant Madness watch the video here YouTube Preview Image) the documentary explored the concept that all human beings are suspicious and selfish creatures that will engage in a type of strategic game play. Both The Prisoner’s Dilemma, as well as the similar problem known as “The Tragedy of the Common” (which was outlined in Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay for Science Magazine when he was a professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara), describes situations in which multiple individuals that act independently of each other, will consult their own-self interest. The Tragedy of the Commons is a type of multi-player version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. What makes the concepts so disconcerting is that this process is supposedly rational, regardless of the fact that in the long-term it is not for anyone’s interest.

As someone who has worked for the past five years at a private family foundation, my work has been focused solely on grantmaking activities to non-profit organizations. The goal of this grantmaking is specifically to increase the availability of various types of public goods, and to fund public-service organizations that work to increase the vitality of the non-profit sector. The implications that individuals are guided by the exact opposite of altruism goes against the entire non-profit industry in the United States, which advocates for wide-ranging issues such as ending poverty, homelessness, hunger, environmental reforms, health reform, and better education.  The very existence of these kinds of organizations seem to disprove the central concepts of both The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons.

It leads me to wonder would America have such a thriving non-profit sector if this kind of altruistic behavior did not exist but was rather marked by self-interested individuals? According to this article from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, (which serves as the national clearinghouse of data on the nonprofit sector in the United States) there are currently over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, with 997,579 public charities, 118,428 private foundations, and 453,570 other types of nonprofit organizations including civil leagues. This seems to speak to a clear desire by the American public, who often funds these kinds of organizations, to support non-profit organizations and their efforts. Another clear example of this is the recent fundraising efforts in Haiti (it’s reported that the Red Cross alone has raised over $10 million by having cell phone subscribers texting the word HAITI to 90999). If you were to examine this from the point of view of self-interested individuals you could argue that individuals make contributions to these organizations because it offers tax breaks, or that people get some sort of social status for contributing to these organizations.

This concept of selfish rational and self-interested human beings is discussed in the second and third segments of the program. If it’s true, as The Trap discusses and ultimate concludes in the third and final segment “We Will Force You To Be Free”, that “the freedom we live with today is a narrow and limiting one that was born out of the cold war”, we have to examine how future attempts to change the world for the better can lead to something that is the opposite of tyranny. The concept of changing the world for better, or for a collective good, are ideas that are very much ingrained into our society, even through government funded programs such as Teach for America. And the relationship between self-interested individuals versus a society that works for some notion of a public good inevitably brings up the questions of what role the internet plays in this dynamic.  For example, in the 21st century, does the internet and technology itself acts as extension of that freedom? Does it allow for greater fundraising efforts thus providing a stronger basis for non-profit organizations? Or perhaps, although it’s a less popular view, is it possible that the internet is merely a continuation in the repression of citizens?

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  1. nadine 20:31, Jan 25th, 10

    I was also amazed by the amount of money that the Red Cross has raised by text messaging! It’s incredible! Besides the immense expression of solidarity and altruism, it is such an effective and easy way to donate. Why didn’t anybody came up with this further? Certainly, this kind of money transfer will expand in the next few years. Kenya seems to lead the way:
    “Expanding the Financial Services Frontier: Lessons From Mobile Phone Banking in Kenya”
    PS: I like your blog entry: constructed around a central idea, informative but personal at the same time. Good job!

  2. Leslie 21:30, Jan 25th, 10

    Hey Elizabeth- I agree with your overall message here. The documentary, as well as Nash’s idea of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. While there is undoubtedly truth to both, they are also extreme examples. There is plenty of good in the world, too, where people help each other succeed. Your thoughts on non-profit societies is a good example of this. And, hopefully the Internet will help such sectors grow and flourish even more in the future, as can be seen with the American Red Cross and Haiti.

    Lady Gaga and Ben Stiller are two more examples of how the internet (and having a fan base that respects you) can help promote an altruistic cause. This past Sunday (1/24), Lady Gaga diverted all profits she received from merchandise purchased online (as well as at her concert that night in NYC) to helping Haiti. You can see her talking about it on Oprah here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYA1Ab2bJbc&feature=related (fast forward to 3:17). Also, Stiller is currently diverting all money donated to his foundation (Stiller Strong) to Haiti relief at his website http://stillerstrong.org/.

    Blogs and social media have also helped to promote both causes. I know I found out about Lady Gaga’s through my friend’s Facebook post.

  3. HoniehBarak 00:26, Jan 26th, 10


    I have to agree with you in your comments that the altruistic behavior that these Non profit organizations focus themselves with would complete contradict the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Game Theory, etc. In order for these non profit’s to function, there has always been a give and take. Leslie makes a good point that relating celebrities and good will – but do we always need famous icons to promote us to do good will? For example, Britney Spear’s recently auctioned off her dress to donate the funds to Haiti.


    In essence, Britney only used her fame, nothing else. The Versace dress was given to her for free, so I don’t believe she did anything that would be characterized as selflessness.

    At times, charity can be perceived as a selfish tactic to promote one’s career.