Should you panic buy fuel? A true prisoner’s dilemma

Should you panic buy fuel? A true prisoner's dilemma

Should you panic buy fuel? A true prisoner's dilemma

Many forecourts across the UK have queues, and shortages are starting. I’ve already scootered past one "sold out of diesel" sign. While the potential truckers’ strike was the catalyst, that’s no longer the problem. The issue is the resultant panic. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma. The concern is if you don’t act and everyone else does, it’s worse for you.

The prisoner’s dilemma

This is a classic part of game theory. (Read more about it on Wikipedia – I’ve taken a couple of extracts from there.)

The set up…

"Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal – if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (co-operates/assists), the betrayer goes free and the co-operator receives the full one-year sentence."

"If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?"

  Prisoner B stays silent Prisoner B confesses
Prisoner A stays silent Each serves 1 month Prisoner A: 1 year
Prisoner B: Goes free
Prisoner A confesses Prisoner A: Goes free
Prisoner B: 1 year
Each serves 3 months

As can be seen, the correct solution is dependent on what someone else does independently, and I think we’re seeing exactly that now in the petrol panic-buy situation.

The petrol buyer’s dilemma

Here’s my roughly reworked version (I’ve only looked at the outcome for individuals):

  You don’t panic buy You panic buy
Most don’t panic buy Fuel shortages unlikely You’re definitely sorted
Most others panic buy You’ve higher risk of no fuel when you run out You’re likely to get some fuel due to earlier buying

Of course, as we’re talking about the interaction of one individual with a mass, it’s not quite the same as the classic dilemma. But the psychology is similar.

Had no-one started panic buying, there wouldn’t be a problem (one reason why politicians, who need to focus on the greater good, should always do what they can to try and forestall such actions).

Yet if others are panic buying, taking the moral high ground and refusing to join in increases the risk, as there may be shortages.

So should you be tanking up even if not needed?

We’re in a mid-way point at the moment depending on where you live, and if everyone calmed down things should return to normal pretty quickly, which would be best for all. So, on a moral basis, we’re all better off to steer clear of the pumps unless needed. 

At a bare minimum, everyone should be using the right driving and buying techniques to conserve fuel (see Cheap Petrol guide for lots of tips).

Yet those who work in critical jobs (doctors, nurses etc) or those who may have long journeys to take family to hospital planned can’t take those risks, and probably should fill up just in case. 

As this tweet I received (tweet me via @martinslewis) last night shows…

My husband needed 2 fill his ambulance last night in Nottingham & couldn’t find any diesel. #healthatrisk #fuel# stopthepanic" – Leanne Pearson

Ultimately, here the answer is everyone needs to address the balance between the moral and practical decision for themselves. Personally, I’ve filled up my scooter with the £7-worth it takes as it was nearly empty, but left my Smart car with half a tank of fuel. 

What do you think?