Beirut traffic: The prisoner’s dilemma in action

Or ‘Why Lebanon needs traffic lights’

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic game theory example that is used to show how logical individual actions can be deeply illogical for a group and/or society as a whole. In it, two members of a criminal gang are arrested and held in separate rooms, with no information about the other. The cops have limited information, so if neither talks they will get only a lesser charge and serve a one year sentence — the best result for all.

Yet, the theory holds, they will both reason individually, rather than collectively, and therefore will betray the other — with both subsequently going to prison for two years each. This is because both know that if the other betrays them and they remain silent, they alone will serve a three year sentence and the other will walk free.

Now apply this to Lebanon. Lebanese people have long been aware of the country’s terrible traffic problems, with hours of gridlock the norm. But a new video published last week illustrates how it can be a case of logical individual choices creating collective carnage.

In the video (shown below) dozens of cars arrive at an intersection at the same time. Each pursues the logical individual choice — to try and sneak through and get to their destination quickly. The result is collective gridlock.

In an email with Executive, the publisher Moophz Himself — who preferred not to give his real name — said the film was made at an intersection in the Bauchrieh suburb in northern Beirut.

He said he chose to publish it to make a point about Lebanese society. “The video is a slight projection for our society in terms of selfishness and short term intelligence. The majority of drivers are not aware that waiting in line helps them reach destinations with less pain — resulting bottlenecks, noise pollution and mental health injuries.”

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.


  1. Red said:

    A messed up society at best. Ants and bees do better in organizing traffic and following the rules.

  2. Rony Nehmé said:

    Unfortunately even with traffic lights the majority of people are not aware of the simplest traffic code and end up blocking the intersection which happens so many times and frustrates drivers who will stop waiting their turns. Chaos prevails so busy intersections still need a traffic control officer. Education is missing and harshly enforcing the law is also non-existent.