My Intro to IR Class is full of Realists

Last Tuesday in POLI 1140, the students completed an class oil-market exercise in which pairs of students engaged in a strategic situation that required them to sell oil at specific prices. Many students were able to understand relatively quickly that the “Oil Game” was an example of the classic prisoner’s dilemma (PD). As Mingst and Arreguin-Toft note on page 78, the crucial point about the prisoner’s dilemma:

Neither prisoner knows how the other will respond; the cost of not confessing if the other confesses is extraordinarily high. So both will confess, leading to a less-than-optimal outcome for both.

From a theoretical perspective (and empirical tests have generally confirmed this) there will likely be very little cooperation in one-shot prisoner’s dilemma-type situations. Over repeated interaction, however, learning can contribute to higher levels of cooperation. With respect to IR theories, specifically, it is argued that realists are more likely to defect in PD situations as they are concerned with relative gains. Liberals, on the other hand, who value absolute gains more highly, are more likely to cooperate and create socially more optimal outcomes. What were the results in our class?

The graph above plots the level of cooperation across all six years (stages) of the exercise. There were seven groups and what the probabilities demonstrate is that in each year there was only one group for which the interaction was cooperative. In year 2, there was not a single instance of cooperation. Moreover, it was the same group that cooperated. Therefore, one of the groups cooperated 5 out of 6 years, while none of the other six groups cooperated a single time over the course of the sex years!! What a bunch of realists!!

If you were involved in this exercise, please let me know your reactions to what happened.