Today I ran a slightly different version of Kim Kardashian’s prisoner’s dilemma. I set the scene with students — “you are arrested, taken into an interrogation room, and accused of committing a crime with an accomplice . . .” Then I gave every student a folded piece of paper. On each paper I had written the name of the other person accused of the crime. I told students not to reveal what was written on the paper, and to just to write down their decision to “confess” or “don’t confess.”
For the first iteration, every piece of paper had the name Kim Kardashian written on it. I tallied the results of students’ decisions on the board. Then I had students play the game a second time, and passed out new pieces of paper, which had my name written on them. I am happy to report that students chose to confess twice as frequently when paired with Kim Kardashian than when paired with me.
During discussion, two students pointed out that the safest option in both iterations of the game was to confess — the payoff structure remained the same. But as happened two years ago, for the majority of students perceptions mattered more than rational calculations of self-interest, and they regarded Ms. Kardashian as less trustworthy. They were more willing to risk the chance of a shorter prison sentence with me.
I then connected Ms. Kardashian’s persistent image problem to soft power and national branding. If one individual has a favorable perception another, the latter is better able to gain the cooperation of the former. The same goes for nation-states and their leaders. Bad image, less ability to persuade others.
This was a fairly easy chain of logic for students to grasp, but I then sent the discussion into a different direction: how they view a national brand is not necessarily how people from other parts of the world view it. Before class, students had written responses to some literature on the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, and this literature referenced how citizens and governments of EU member states perceived Turkey and the Turks. To put it bluntly, Turkey had an image problem similar to Kim Kardashian’s, at least before the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The solution, as many students saw it, was for Turkey to become more like the USA.
I then revealed some survey data from 2011: Egyptians had been asked, “If Egypt’s political system looked like one of the following countries, which one would you prefer it to be?” Turkey ranked first, at 44 percent. The USA ranked sixth, at 5 percent. For Egyptians, Turkey had a more positive brand than the USA, potentially giving it much more soft power over Egypt.
Here is the literature that I used for today’s class:
- Robert A. Saunders, “Buying into Brand Borat: Kazakhstan’s Cautious Embrace of Its Unwanted ‘Son’,” Slavic Review 67, 1 (Spring 2008), p. 63-80.
- Thomas Diez, “Expanding Europe: The Ethics of EU-Turkey Relations,” Ethics and International Affairs 21, 4 (2007), p. 415-422.
- Rainier Hulsse, “Cool Turkey: Solving the Image Problem to Secure EU Membership,” Mediterranean Politics, 11, 3 (November 2006), p. 309–327.
- Peter van Ham, “The Rise of the Brand State: The Postmodern Politics of Image and Reputation,” Foreign Affairs 80, 5 (Sep-Oct 2001), p. 2-6.
- Shibley Telhani, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, New York: Basic Books, 2013.
For another example of how prisoner’s dilemma can lead a class into unexpected directions, go here.
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