1016: Valentine Dilemma

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Valentine Dilemma
The worst resolution to the Valentine Prisoner's Dilemma when YOU decide not to give your partner a present but your PARTNER decides to testify against you in the armed robbery case.
Title text: The worst resolution to the Valentine Prisoner's Dilemma when YOU decide not to give your partner a present but your PARTNER decides to testify against you in the armed robbery case.


Both Megan and Cueball are agonizing over what to get each other for Valentine's Day. Both of them seem to consider the holiday unnecessary and artificial, but worry that failure to celebrate it might upset their romantic partner. Because they're considering this separately, neither seems to realize that the other has a similar response. This results in both panicking and doing weird things.

At the heart of the way they are acting is the prisoner's dilemma. This is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory, which shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. Wikipedia has a great example of prisoner's dilemma, which illustrates it very well:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

In this way, both Cueball and Megan are kept separate, each not knowing what the other is going to do for Valentine's Day, in what the comic title terms the Valentine Dilemma. Both do weird things for Valentine's Day, which ends up being the perfect result to the Valentine Dilemma, as both end up with the same level of weirdness and don't go for the grand gesture.

The title text combines the two dilemma scenarios in an absurd juxtaposition, with the reader ("you") choosing from the Valentine's Day gift-no gift dilemma and the other person choosing to betray the reader in an armed-robbery case (which might be why they are testifying against you in the first place).

The Prisoner's Dilemma has been referenced before, in 696: Strip Games.


[Cueball standing with hand on chin.]
Cueball: Flowers seem so... trite. Something homemade? Easy to look halfhearted.
[A frame-less panel of Megan sitting at a computer, also with hand on chin.]
Megan: Valentine's day is a corporate construct.
Megan: But hard to opt out of.
Megan: I don't want to be a corporate tool or an inconsiderate jerk.
[Cueball pacing.]
Cueball: How do I fight cliché? I could get her a gift on a different day.
Cueball: But what am I proving?
[Megan leaning back with stapler in hand.]
Megan: It's such a contrived ritual. But maybe rituals are necessary social glue.
[Zoomed in on Cueball panicking.]
Cueball: Forty presents. No, none! No, give her five items and then steal two from her.
Cueball: OK, breathe. Keep it together.
[Zoomed in on Megan sweating, still holding the stapler.]
Megan: And what if he gets me something and I don't reciprocate?
Megan: Prisoners dilemma!
[Cueball and Megan talking. Cueball is holding a basket and a jar of hammers. Megan's hand is stapled to her face.]
Cueball: I got you Easter candy and a jar of hammers.
Megan: I panicked and stapled my hand to my face.
Cueball: We overthought this.
Megan: Yes.

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It really depends on how good the hammers are. Good, solid machined hammers are enough to win any girl's heart. Davidy22[talk] 13:07, 18 February 2013 (UTC)

The hammer is my penis. 18:41, 4 March 2015 (UTC)
Well that's no good, is it? Made by unskilled labour. Homegrown is not a desirable attribute here. Xilotha (talk) 20:22, 18 August 2019 (UTC)

In frame 4, is Megan holding a laptop or the stapler? Looks more like a stapler... Sabik (talk) 08:34, 10 February 2014 (UTC)

Given that she appears to be gripping it as though it was a narrow object, and in the next frame mentions that she stapled her hand to her face, I'd say it's quite likely that it is a stapler.Pennpenn (talk) 03:42, 26 February 2014 (UTC)