When Colorado Springs canceled its Easter egg hunt over the weekend it blamed too many pushy parents jumping over a rope barrier to help their kids find eggs, which seems pretty much inevitable once one crosses the line. While this might seem like the latest example of 21st-century over-parenting (like those parents that follow their adult kids to work or the ones planning their kids' births around what kindergarten they'll get into), it actually speaks to a similar impulse displayed in the classic game theory demonstration the prisoner's dilemma, as the behavioral science blog Modeled Behavior pointed out on Monday.
In the the prisoners' dilemma, two arrestees are offered the chance to avoid jail by betraying one another, but they'll only avoid jail time entirely if the other prisoner refuses to turn over. If both betray the other, they each get three months. If both refuse to betray trust, they'll each get a month. But if prisoner A rats out prisoner B, and prisoner B doesn't rat out prisoner A, then A goes free and B gets a year. The game usually ends with both prisoners betraying each other and receiving longer jail terms, each hoping to go free by ratting out the other.
Similarly, if every parent agrees not to jump into the kids' easter egg hunt, then each kid stands a good chance of finding at least a couple eggs (though some may not). If one parent betrays the trust of the game by jumping in to help their kid, then their kid gets a huge advantage -- but only if no other parents do. But few parents would be willing to stand by and let one adult join in the hunt without also joining themselves. As we learned from Colorado Springs, once enough parents jump in and betray trust, then the whole Easter egg hunt goes away, and all the kids wind up with empty baskets.