Love is a prisoner’s dilemma

Well that is one of the interpretations from the Google autocomplete results for the search “how can I get my boyfriend/girlfriend to” (ht Offsetting Behaviour).

Why?  Well the third highest result when asking about boyfriends, and the fifth highest when asking about girlfriends is “how can I get my boy/girl to love me again”.  The prevalence of the search suggests that love is something that is valued by both sexes, yet even in terms of a relationship (which is partially just a tacit agreement for providing the service of love) there appears to be an underprovision of love.  (More evidence of a hole in love provision?)

This makes sense if we view the choice of how strongly to love through the lens of a prisoner’s dilemma.  Think of it this way.  Say an individual has the choice to show a high level of love to their partner or to show none.  Furthermore, each individual receives a higher payoff when their partner shows them love.

However, if it is:

  1. More costly to show love than the direct benefit received from giving it,
  2. Or, an individual receives some personal benefit from not showing love,
  3. Or, by not showing love an individual knows they can extract something else of value from their partner/life.

Then we could face a case where each individual has a dominant strategy to not show love.  In this case, neither partner shows love.

Now if the benefit from another individual showing you love exceeds the benefit received from not showing love (in any state of the world), then we have a typical prisoner’s dilemma – where the best outcome would be the one where both individuals show each other love, but neither of the partners do.

If this is occurring, we can say that the provision of love in society may be suboptimal.  If this is the case, then the lyrics from “The End” by the Beatles can be rationalised as a rule of thumb that will provide higher aggregate happiness.  By getting people to follow that rule (acting as if the love they make will be returned 1 for 1), the Beatles ensure that the provision of love rises (as people believe that the marginal benefit of providing love is higher).

Just like Jesus, we can view the Beatles as welfare economists.

Note:  However, Google does not think that love is a prisoner’s dilemma:

Love is

9 replies
  1. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Do you think your result (no love) might be generated by the imposition of a binary decision set? With continuous choice variables you might still get underprovision, but I doubt it would be zero in equilibrium.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Agreed. The binary decision set was only put forward to simplify the discussion – as always. The only goal was to discuss that there could be a “underprovision of love”, not to state that there is a “zero equilibrium” level of love in the world.

  3. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    I thought that was likely the case. Do you also think that there might be observability problems with love? If it’s costly to give without receiving equally in return, then difficulties observing reciprocation could cause underprovision.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    For sure – there is definitely a gap between the quantity of love provided, the quantity of love received (perception differences), and the relevant values that the individuals take into account.

    There are a multitude of explanations we could write up to explain this result – you could do a blog post on another if you like 😉

  5. Roseanna Leaton
    Roseanna Leaton says:

    Fear is what prevents so many people from giving love. Isn’t it ironic that the fear of not being loved is what stops you from giving love fully, which in turn prevents you from entering into the loving relationship which you were so fearful of not finding?

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