The dramatic events at FIFA have some very interesting parallels with Puccini’s opera Tosca. Tosca, the heroine of the plot, is faced with an unenviable choice. Her lover Cavaradossi has been condemned to death by the corrupt police chief Scarpia. Tosca is left alone with Scarpia, who thinks that he is on to a good thing when he offers to have the firing squad use blank bullets if Tosca will let him have his wicked way with her. What should Tosca do? She spies a knife on the table, and works out that she can win both ways by agreeing to Scarpia’s proposal, but actually stabbing him when he comes close. Unfortunately for her, Scarpia has already worked out that he can win both ways by not really telling the firing squad to use blank bullets. He dies, Cavaradossi dies, and when Tosca finds out what has happened, she flings herself off a castle parapet and dies too. Everyone is a loser, as is often the way with opera.
Everyone is a loser in real life as well when caught in this particular sort of dilemma. Game theorists call it the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for reasons that you can discover in Post 59 of my Mini Stories from Science. We might also call it the FIFA dilemma, or even the Tosca dilemma. Whatever we call it, though, its basis is simple. It refers to situations where cooperation would produce the best overall outcome, but where individuals can be tempted by the logic of self-interest to cheat on the cooperation. When both sides cheat, however, the results can be catastrophic.
And that’s just what may happen with the FIFA scandal. Accusations of corruption (the corruption being driven by the logic of self-interest) are at its heart. If all of those accused stick to protestations of innocence, they may come through unscathed. If the accusations are true, though, a likely scenario is that some of those accused will be tempted (again driven by the logic of self-interest) to point the finger at others in order to escape punishment themselves. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and those others may, using the same logic, be tempted to point the finger back – in which case all parties will lose out, compared to what might have happened if they had all cooperated to support each other in their protestations of interest in the first place.
Yes, I know that it’s a bit more complicated than that, but game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma provide an important and instructive framework for understanding, as they do in so many of life’s dramas.