Sunday Surgical Scrub

Before each and every case, a surgeon scrubs and disinfects his hands. At the same time, he or she becomes solely focused on the task at hand – preparing to navigate a complex surgical path – and ready to confront any difficulties that lie ahead. Here, on the Sunday Surgical Scrub, I bring you what I’m pondering for the week ahead.

David Almeida MD MBA PhD


“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.


TASK AT HAND: This week I’m thinking about cooperation and lengthening the shadow of the future. Let me explain what this means.

In game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma – commonly evoked in strategy development – is an example of a scenario where rational individuals would do better if they did not cooperate even though it appears that it is in their best interests to work together.

The prisoner’s dilemma is as follows:

–       Two criminals from the same syndicate are arrested.

–       Each criminal is in solitary confinement with no ability to communicate with the other.

–       Prosecutors do not have enough evidence to convict either criminal on a major charge but hope to charge each with a lesser crime with a punishment of 1 year in jail.

–       At the same time, prosecutors offer each criminal a deal: testify against the other criminal and get off while the other gets convicted on a major charge and faces 2 years in jail. Or, cooperate with the other criminal, stay silent, and get 1 year in jail on the lesser charge.


Here are the possible outcomes:

–       If both betray each other, each of them serves 2 years in jail, on a major charge.

–       If both cooperate and remain silent, each serve 1 year in jail, on a lesser charge.

–       If one betrays the other but the other remains silent, one would get off free, and the other would serve 2 years.


It would seem, looking at the possible outcomes, that the rational strategy would be for both to remain silent and serve the 1 year in jail on a lesser charge. However, this is not the best strategy. Game theory purports that it is clearly in the best interests of the criminal to betray the other for the possibility of no jail time. Since betrayal always results in a better payoff than cooperation – irrespective of the other person’s choice – it is the dominant theory. Because you cannot assure that the other criminal will stay silent, your only choice is to betray. In fact, in the prisoner’s dilemma, mutual betrayal is the only strong outcome.

Where is the dilemma?

The dilemma occurs because mutual cooperation would provide a better outcome (only 1 year for both on a lesser charge) than mutual betrayal. But, this is not the rational outcome because, if you assume individuals act to maximize their self-interest, the choice to betray is preferred over cooperation.

So, what does this have to do with lengthening the future?

Shadow of the future is another basic game theory concept which states that we behave differently when we expect to interact with others repeatedly over time. At the prospect of having to interact multiple times, our behavior changes since we can now be punished or rewarded for previous choices. Our choices today are shadows on future interactions. If those criminals are loyal to their crime syndicate and expect to interact with that individual again, remaining silent becomes a significantly better strategy, albeit not entirely rational. This is a form of conditional retaliation strategy and favors cooperation.

How can we use this for our decisions, choices and strategies?

There is nothing wrong with working towards optimizing our self-interests; notwithstanding, be careful to not interpret the prisoner’s dilemma as always needing to solely pursue your best interests at one particular point in time. Assess the relationships in your decision and look for opportunities to lengthen the shadow of the future – look to cooperate and maximize value to others and support their interests as future prospects.


MEDICINE & MACULA: Many thanks to Clinical Ophthalmology for recently publishing our study, Epiretinal membrane and cystoid macular edema as predictive factors of recurrent proliferative vitreoretinopathy (Kunyong Xu, Eric K Chin, D Wilkin Parke 3rd & David RP Almeida).

You can find our study in the October 2017 issue here.

In it, we describe epiretinal membrane and cystoid macular edema as potential predictive factors for recurrent proliferative vitreoretinopathy. Early recognition and treatment of these conditions may be critical to prevent dreaded recurrent postoperative scarring and improve visual outcomes.


GRATIS: “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand.” -E. M. Forster


My best to you,

David Almeida