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Speaking Up as a Multiplayer Prisoner’s Dilemma

Sep 27 2023 • 4 min read

Imagine you work in an open office with other people. One day, you see one of your colleagues acting in a way you felt was inappropriate with another. You don’t know if others in the office judged the action the same way. You’re considering whether to speak-up about the incident. You can either speak-up or you can withhold. What do you do? Imagine you then find out that five of your colleagues have already spoken up about the incident. Does this change your decision? This is a situation that many people are faced with on a daily basis. It might not surprise you to learn that most people choose to withhold but some people bravely choose to speak up. Why?

Early this month, The Sunday Times, The Times and Channel 4 published allegations from five women accusing Russell Brand of rape, sexual assaults and emotional abuse over a seven year period. Police have since received further allegations against him (which Brand continues to deny). It’s the latest in a series of reports against powerful people accused of inappropriate behaviour, stretching back to accusations made against Harvey Weinstein by the New York Times and New Yorker in 2017. Most of them involve a similar story of a small number of people speaking-up despite personal risk, leading to an avalanche of accusations.

In behavioural science speak, each situation is an example of a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma. Multiple people in a group experience the same or similar behaviour and are faced with the same choice with two options: to speak-up or to withhold their complaint about the perpetrator. Each person believes the behaviour is wrong and wants to speak-up to protect themselves and others. However, they are afraid to speak up because doing so may damage their career or reputation. What option they choose will affect others in the group and vice versa. The economist, Thomas Schelling, refers to these as binary choices with externalities.

Like other social dilemmas, the multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma involves a conflict between individual and group interests. Each person has an incentive to withhold due to the risk of punishment, but the group will benefit most if everyone speaks up. The twist is that everybody in the group has a threshold at which they would be happy to speak-up as part of a collective. It might be one other person, it might be 10, it might be more. However, nobody wants to speak-up first, and even if someone does, speaking-up normally happens confidentially hidden from the rest of the group.

One way to solve the dilemma is to introduce a broker. In the case of Russell Brand and Harvey Weinstein, the broker turned out to be the journalists who broke the story after long investigations. The journalist ‘brokers’ were able to encourage each individual to share their story because they were also able to reveal that other people had also come forward with similar stories. By doing so, they make the behaviours visible without revealing any identifiable details. The broker then gives the people the opportunity to speak-up collectively once they reach a certain number. This in turn prompts more people to come forward.

The lesson for organisations is that people are more likely to speak-up when they can observe others in their group speaking up. This defies conventional solutions that try to conceal such behaviour. Striking the right balance between confidentiality and visibility is crucial, and using brokers is a savvy approach. Another example is the network of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians across the healthcare system in England. However, brokers are only one part of the solution to address situations in which people have a real fear of speaking up. Organisations need to do more to make speaking-up visible and to establish what behaviours are inappropriate, ultimately leading to a culture without the need for brokers.

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