Balls of Steal (Aka Proud to be human)

Check out this link that I found in John Taylor’s blog.  The best 3:53 clip in game show history:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0

A few reactions (watch the clip first.)  As Taylor says, this is a great example to use when teaching the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If find this a jaw-dropping illustration of the fruits of 4.5 million years of human evolution since “Ardi.”  The cognitive arms race between game-playing and detection has produced humans with superb game-playing skills.  Yes, doctors may be unable to understand conditional probability, and investors may be unable to spot bubbles when they are right in front of them, but no one can question the social IQs of us humans.   Could dolphins play this sort of game?  I don’t think so.  I’ve never been more proud to be human.

But what about the, how shall I put it, ethical issues involved here?  This is not a zero sum game.  Doesn’t this game-playing conflict with my utilitarian ethics?  Yes.  I have a philosopher friend who favors the Golden Rule—a consequentialist ethic similar to utilitarianism.  I like to tease him that if everyone followed his advice then we’d have to discard all the plays of Shakespeare, as they’d all seem incomprehensible.  The motivations of the characters would be foreign to us.  That makes me wonder how this game show would appear to cultures outside of the UK.  What would the Danes think?  What would the Russians think?  Would people in some cultures find the show boring, wondering why anyone would be such a fool as to pick “share,” and would other cultures find the show too disgusting to watch, like a sort of ethical pornography?  Maybe our narrative arts require both good and bad people, good and bad behavior.  I don’t have any answers, but the questions seem interesting.

Update: I just had a thought—I’d love to play this game against (or should I say “with”) John Rawls.


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45 Responses to “Balls of Steal (Aka Proud to be human)”

  1. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    25. October 2009 at 10:58

    You want to pick share, but you also want to seem sketchy about which you are planning on picking… so they also pick share. If it seems you are certain on picking share, they are more likely to pick steal.

  2. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    25. October 2009 at 10:59

    You are right, that is a pretty amazing game.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. October 2009 at 11:16

    No matter how much you think about the prisoner’s dilemma, there is always something a bit mind-boggling about it. I have a weird philosophical hunch that what we think of as “identity” may be a myth. That statements like “I can control my way of thinking” may be utter nonsense (although we all think we know what it means.) In any case, I find the prisoner’s dilemma endlessly fascinating. My hunch is that really good and really bad people find it less interesting.

  4. Gravatar of rob rob
    25. October 2009 at 12:00

    “That makes me wonder how this game show would appear to cultures outside of the UK.”

    I suspect this show would not be tolerated on American TV.

  5. Gravatar of JohnW JohnW
    25. October 2009 at 12:55

    Unless it is against the rules, I would say to the other person, you can pick my ball if I can pick your ball. That should effectively randomize the choices, so each person has an expected value of 3/8 of the money.

  6. Gravatar of Nick Rowe Nick Rowe
    25. October 2009 at 14:02

    But, like all experiments in economics, it really is a zero-sum game, despite pretending to be Prisoner’s Dilemma. If they both choose “steal”, all the money goes back to the host.

    One of my colleagues once ran a little experiment in class. At the end of the class, the student who had won the $20 gave it back to the prof.

  7. Gravatar of david david
    25. October 2009 at 14:33

    Coincidentally, there is some related discussion on prisoner’s dilemmas going on here. Recommended.

    Many real-life situations that resemble a prisoner’s dilemma involve a metagame of some kind, and the payoffs are rarely as simple as the model implies. In this case there is (for example) the underlying threat of being shown on public TV to be untrustworthy.

    Other than that, I’d say that it’s at least a little odd to be proud of being able to deceive and be deceived, since what is at hand is ultimately an absence of a way to reliably precommit to an outcome. And the ways we deal with this failure are manifold and fascinating, but it’s still a failure.

  8. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    25. October 2009 at 15:04

    Actually, this isn’t a pure prisoner’s dilemma… That woman will go through the rest of her life with all of her friends knowing she is, at the very end, a defector. There is a cost to that…

  9. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    25. October 2009 at 15:48

    The Rawls comment is hilarious.

    “I can control my thinking” is nearly meaningless, as the implicit memory system, which is more immediately and profoundly tied to the amygdala(emotion centers), mostly does what it wants.

  10. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    25. October 2009 at 16:47

    The term “ethical pornography” has already been claimed with a different meaning. Lawsuits against Sumner for infringement of intellectual property are being filed as we speak.

  11. Gravatar of Jack Jack
    25. October 2009 at 17:02

    There actually was a game like this in U.S. called Friend or Foe on the Game Show Network:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friend_or_Foe%3F

  12. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    25. October 2009 at 17:41

    Re the Rawls comments… I would _never_ play this game with an economist. Why? Because many of them are insane.

    I once had an instructor who presented the standard results on repeated play PD. (In a game with a small probability of ending after each time period relative to payoff, it’s optimal to start cooperating under the knowledge that there are multiple nash equillibria and pareto superior nash equillibria is to cooperate from the start (and forever)… but in any repeat play game with a fixed endpoint, recursion from the fixed endpoint means it’s always optimal to defect throughout.)

    The instructor insisted – absolutely – that being rational that’s how he would play. I asked what he would do if the repeat game had a huge number of fixed plays – say, a million. Even a billion.

    His answer: Defect from the very first play, because he _knew_ that his opponent would defect on the last play (a million sets in the future), and therefore recursion meant there was no shadow of the future, and hence his opponent would defect on the first play… and hence he would too.

    It blew my mind, especially when he tried to convince me why “normal” people would do the same thing as him. That’s one of the reasons I have always distrusted mathematical economists.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. October 2009 at 03:55

    rob, You may be right. But I am one American who thinks it’s a great idea (for what it’s worth.)

    johnW, I would think that under the scheme you describe the optimal strategy would always be ‘share’ and hence the expected payoff would be 1/2 of the money. What am I missing?

    Nick, I thought of that too. It is one reason why I don’t trust experimental economics, unless confirmed in the real world. John List showed that experiments often don’t carry over into real world conditions.

    david, I agree with everything you say. My “proud” comment was half-joking—it’s sort of like pointing out that humans are very good at American-style football partly because they have evolved to be very good at warfare (especially warfare that involves throwing spears.)

    But I was sincere in my reference to Shakespeare. I think the fact that there is so much ambiguity about how humans behave in given situations, allows for the complex psychological portraits in some of the best examples of the narrative arts. If we were always good then things might be better, but much more boring.

    Statsguy, Yes, that is right. Many guys watching this might have unpleasant memories of experiences with young women who they trusted excessively. Now her image will be stamped in many minds as the poster child for deception.

    Mike, Yes, and what puzzles me about that statement is that I have always thought of the terms “I” and “my way of thinking” as being one in the same. But we talk as if there is a little man inside the brain who oversees thought, like a foreman watching workers at a construction site.

    TGGP, Darn! I never come up with anything new–there is always someone there first.

    Jack, Thanks, and I see it had two seasons. Perhaps it lacked the focused drama of the UK version.

    Statsguy. Yes, I agree about how insane economists are. But I think the real problem isn’t the rationality assumption it’s the selfishness assumption. As the Indian economist Sen points out, economists assume selfishness and then provide all sorts of policy advice that could only be meaningful if one assumed policymakers were not selfish. So we need to start there, economists are the irrational ones, not the public. Once you drop the selfishness assumption, then it is easy to resolve all the paradoxes we agonize over. Cooperating in the first round becomes a way of signalling altruism, that you also care about others.

    The reason the prisoner’s dilemma is so fascinating is that we are both selfish and altrusitic. And at the risk of getting too esoteric, I think that alturism is partly linked to the idea that personal identity is something of a myth. Sharing produces greater happiness “out there.” Why should I care if it all flows to “me” if there is no “me?”

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. October 2009 at 04:01

    david, I liked the link you attached. I would just add one thing. He is resolving the paradox within the framework of selfishness. A selfish person wouldn’t want to lose friends. But I also think one has to account for pure altruism. He alludes to this with the guilty conscience example.

  15. Gravatar of david david
    26. October 2009 at 05:00

    Well, the payoff matrix is supposed to account for everything, including altruism. A genuinely altruistic person facing a game tree which someone else might see as a Prisoner’s Dilemma presumably does not see the same payoffs. The problem is not that the ‘selfish’ framework is wrong, but that the person isn’t playing the prisoner’s dilemma at all!

    Taking this approach (which I venture is analogous to revealed preferences vs. preferences in microeconomics) hampers the predictive power of these models, but at least allows it to be consistent with observed reality!

  16. Gravatar of Current Current
    26. October 2009 at 05:14

    A few points…

    Firstly, I’m not sure that this game show plays the prisoner’s dilemma properly. Consider the position of the man with the beard in that game who realised that the woman was doing to steal. In that situation he has no benefit in stealing himself, he may as well play split and lose. In a proper prisoners dilemma there is slightly less of a penalty when both sides steal. It also must be mentioned that the previous round of the game involves tricking people too. So, it’s quite likely that a person gets their reputation muddied on national TV before they reach split or steal, which changes the whole dynamic of the game.

    Secondly, I’m not really all that impressed with human social intelligence. I think that in many situations we humans allow ourselves to be led by more primitive parts of our brain. Have any of you read about what is popularly called “Game”, the art of picking up women. One of my friends is a “player”, a serial seducer. You read about the subject and talk to him and think “that’s silly it can’t possibly work”, but it does. Over very short runs of time it’s extremely effective.

    Thirdly, there is a very interesting recent trend in UK television programming. A great many of the programs send out a very distinct message. They say “I the program makers, and you the viewer are sensible, intelligent, and caring people. However, this class of people over there are foolish, anti-social and a little mad.” Most of the UK terrestrial TV networks are very fond of this type of TV and it forms a huge part of their schedules. For example, most of the BBC’s programs about the USA are about what a bunch of Neanderthal gun-tooting freaks Americans are. I think it’s very interesting to ask the question “why?”

    In Britain the four main terrestrial TV broadcasters are the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The BBC broadcast two analogue channels and the others each have one. Each of them have several terrestrial digital channels. The digital terrestrial system doesn’t currently support a huge number of channels. Although there are about 70 “channels” most of them are time-based, so childrens channels end in the evening where their bandwidth is reused for porn channels. I understand there are only ~30 nationwide physical channels on the digital TV network. However, in 2012 the Analogue terrestrial TV system will be turned off. This will make the huge amount of spectrum it takes up free for other purposes, such as expanding the digital terrestrial television spectrum.

    So, what does this have to do with “Golden Balls” or portraying classes of people as freaks? Quite a lot in my view. The organizations I mentioned above are heavily regulated or state owned. The BBC is state owned, the others must meet complex regulatory requirements that state what sort of programs must be broadcast when and what sort of mix the schedules contain. Some of them are subsidized by taxes. The state ownership and regulation protect the companies involved.

    The analogue system will be turned off gradually between ~2008-2012. The next UK government will decide what happens after that. And here is the rub. The next government will likely be the Conservatives, or possibly a Labour party very different from the current one. They could abolish all this regulation, or even privatise the BBC! These vested interests don’t want that to happen.

    So, what the TV providers are doing is very clever. First they portray each class in Britain as a bunch of freaks to the rest. Then a government representing some set of these classes enters power. The TV providers can then say to this government “don’t you want to do something about these god-awful chavs, middle-class reactionaries, sandal-wearing eco-hippies”. They can then spin new regulations on TV output as beneficial to the nation no matter what government enters power.

    What they must avoid at all costs is implying that any class is a collection of responsible individuals capable of making their own decisions well. Because if people come to believe that then the BBC risk being privatised and the other broadcaster may lose their subsides and regulator protection.

  17. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    26. October 2009 at 06:47

    ssumner/david…

    Per your points, it takes a very very weak form of non-selfishness to destroy the recursion problem in sufficiently long play. In a million-game repeat play PD game (with no discount rate), let’s assume I have prior beliefs that 1 in 1000 people are irrationally “altruistic” but hate being “burned”. In other words, the person is playing pure tit-for-tat with a cooperative opening move. The other 999 players are something else – perhaps even purely economistic, or some mix of types.

    Because of the long repeat play, it’s worth me spending my opening move “testing” my “opponent’s” type. (Why do we always say opponent and not partner? Hmmm.) That’s because even if ALL other players had the most aggressive type of play (defect no matter what), my payoff from finding the one cooperative person and spending 999,999 turns cooperating (then defecting on the very last play) dramatically overwhelms the 999 times I get burned on the first play.

    The _funny_ thing is that we can end up with equillibria where all of the economists cooperate with each other for the vast majority of the game just because there’s one “good apple” in the barrel.

    I’m sure there are lots of deeply philosophical implications… about the power of “good” etc. It’s is also, I think, one of the better defenses for capitalism. The problem is, it’s trivial to construct other situations where small bad dynamics get magnified (and point to real world situations where this occurs).

  18. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    26. October 2009 at 07:02

    The outcome is actually a Nash equilibrium, as the man would not have done any better if he had chosen Steal. Either way he gets nothing if the woman chooses Steal. So this is not a proper prisoner’s dilemma.

  19. Gravatar of Current Current
    26. October 2009 at 07:27

    Statsguy: “In a million-game repeat play PD game (with no discount rate)”

    That’s a very hypothetical sort of idea. Since there can’t repetition without the passing of time. If there is the passing of time then there must be a discount rate.

    When considering situations with no discount rate strange hypotheticals are often encountered.

    Daniel: “The outcome is actually a Nash equilibrium, as the man would not have done any better if he had chosen Steal. Either way he gets nothing if the woman chooses Steal. So this is not a proper prisoner’s dilemma.”

    Exactly, that’s what I said in my post. If you are convinced the other player will steal then you have a strong incentive to play split because you lose nothing by it, but leave your reputation intact. As I said earlier because of the earlier rounds this games is different to the prisoners dilemma.

  20. Gravatar of JohnW JohnW
    26. October 2009 at 08:08

    Scott:

    I was assuming that players would not be allowed to look inside opponents balls, and would therefore not know which choice they were picking for their opponent. So, if players are allowed to pick up opponents balls, I would propose that each player simultaneously take away one of the opponents balls, leaving the opponent with no choice (one ball), and effectively randomizing the choices.

    If there is a hands-off rule on opponents balls, then my strategy would be a bit more involved. I would explain to my opponent that we would each point to an opponents ball, and each player would agree to choose the ball the opponent pointed to (the logistics of this procedure would depend on rules about a player picking up a ball but switching to the other ball at the last minute). I would also explain that if my opponent did NOT choose the ball I pointed to, I would always choose steal, and I would expect the same from my opponent if I broke our agreement.

  21. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    26. October 2009 at 11:29

    Current:

    You can get the same result with a reasonable discount and frequent play over a fixed period – let’s say a 5% annual discount rate, played daily (approx. 0.000134 discount rate per day) – and a quite small percentage (say 2%) of “ignorant” or “altruistic” tit-for-tat players w/ cooperative opening move.

    The point is not that the “way-out” of these extreme solutions is so unstable, but rather that the extreme solutions themselves (i.e. the recursion results from backsolving a million game PD with no discount rate) are so silly and unstable.

  22. Gravatar of Current Current
    26. October 2009 at 11:44

    Statsguy: “You can get the same result with a reasonable discount and frequent play over a fixed period – let’s say a 5% annual discount rate, played daily (approx. 0.000134 discount rate per day) – and a quite small percentage (say 2%) of “ignorant” or “altruistic” tit-for-tat players w/ cooperative opening move.”

    I agree. I think the problem here is that you have to analyze what you’re going to use game theory for.

    Statsguy: “The point is not that the “way-out” of these extreme solutions is so unstable, but rather that the extreme solutions themselves (i.e. the recursion results from backsolving a million game PD with no discount rate) are so silly and unstable.”

    I’m not sure I understand.

  23. Gravatar of david david
    26. October 2009 at 16:43

    The more I read this thread, the more I suspect that this gameshow is an elaborate attempt to get serious people to make as many unintended double entendres as possible. ;)

    Anyway – on reflection, I suspect that the ‘thin-rational’ account I gave above that asserts that payoffs merely reflect revealed preferences is perhaps empirically dis-satisfactory (it becomes difficult to falsify). If you prefer, there’s another account I’ve read due to Ken Binmore that suggests learning behavior that is only slowly modified by strategic concerns. So in unusual situations people still play as if the relevant game is Life, or whatever commonly-encountered social situation that is closest, and only slowly adapt to the actual game they are given. This accounts for the numerous, numerous violations of thick-rational solutions to lab experiments; presumably experimentees who have been sufficiently isolated begin to play according to the thick-rational account. IIRC Binmore claims that this is so.

    In this account, our gameshow becomes a graphic live demonstration of clashing social conventions and newly-introduced mutant behaviors.

    @Current, Statsguy – are you talking about trembling hands? which makes precisely the point that the always-defect rational solution to a finite iterated PD is ‘unstable’ in a rigorous sense.

  24. Gravatar of Bob Murphy Bob Murphy
    26. October 2009 at 17:12

    A few comments now that you all have probably made them in some form already:

    * This is not a prisoner’s dilemma. I would definitely use it in class if I were still teaching game theory, but I wouldn’t do it anywhere near the prisoner’s dilemma so as not to confuse the students. (In fact I wouldn’t let them visit this blog at all.)

    * I think the problem with “paradoxical” games like the finitely repeated prisoner’s dilemma etc. is not the assumption of rationality, but the obsession with equilibrium outcomes. (I grant you it’s a little trickier when there’s a uniquely rationalizable outcome, which is a stronger condition than a game just having a unique Nash equilibrium. Sorry for the jargon but I’m in a rush.) For anyone intrigued by my claim, I elaborate here.

    * I’m not going to take the time to watch it again right now, but did that girl actually say she was going to pick Split? The only thing I remember vividly is her acting as if she’s worried he’s going to steal, and making him promise. I think liars do that a lot; they try to minimize the actual lying. So whenever Senator Obama said, “I have said repeatedly during the campaign that my position is…” I thought he was saying what wasn’t his position. I.e. he only had to lie that first time, and then subsequent to that event, he could truthfully say, “I have repeatedly said…”

  25. Gravatar of rob rob
    26. October 2009 at 17:24

    it reminds me how in the business world some view everything as a game and the rules of the game are our laws and as long as u dont break a law u havent acted unethically since u were playing by the rules. others of course think ethics exists different and apart from legal rules, even in busin
    ess.

  26. Gravatar of rob rob
    26. October 2009 at 17:30

    did the girl who stole act unethically? of course not. she played a game by the rules. but it wasnt just a game since the money was substantial. when we choose to remain faithful or cheat on our spouses, are we just playing another game, within the context of natural laws?

    makes me think of the Whitman line: All is good, even evil.

  27. Gravatar of Current Current
    27. October 2009 at 02:04

    Regarding Ken Binmore’s idea…. There is a great deal of evidence from psychology that people judge individual situations on the basis of rules learnt through wider life. Many people have said this. There is a great deal of evidence from experimental psychology for it too.

  28. Gravatar of Bob Murphy Bob Murphy
    27. October 2009 at 04:40

    I posted this on my site as well, and one of the readers said something like, “I was pretty sure she was going to do him in about halfway through–otherwise why would you have posted the video?” I explained:

    “I was completely shocked, but I realized it was because Scott Sumner had titled his post “Proud to be human” or something like that. So I’m watching it, thinking Scott’s point is that “irrational” human emotions can allow us to transcend games with bad incentives.

    But no, Scott is proud we are a bunch of thieves. I suspect this explains his monetary recommendations.”

  29. Gravatar of BobGillette BobGillette
    27. October 2009 at 08:59

    Somewhat off the main topic, I was hoping that you would expand on the idea of the golden rule as a consequentialist ethical theory.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. October 2009 at 10:08

    david, I agree. But let me add that I have no interest in game theory models, I am interested in reality. I find it interesting that we don’t know what would happen in reality (as this show demonstrates.) Yes, others have pointed out that it isn’t a perfect example of the PD. But because people are a mixture of selfishness and altrusim we don’t even know what would happen in a perfect example.

    current, You know more about the UK than I do, so I’ll defer to your conspiralorial view of things.

    1. I agree it wasn’t a true PD. But it was fun.

    2. I could read that book about pickup lines, and still be totally unable to deliver them in a bar. The “ladies” probably sense that the guys have “balls of steal” if they are willing to spout such nonsense. And don’t people get ahead in politics and business (sales) by spounting nonsense? So maybe the ladies knew what they were falling for.

    3. Statsguy; You said;

    “Because of the long repeat play, it’s worth me spending my opening move “testing” my “opponent’s” type. (Why do we always say opponent and not partner? Hmmm.)”

    I agree. There was an interesting piece on bloggingheads recently that discussed what would happen if you saw a coin flipped 99 times and heads came up each time. What do you predict for the hundredth flip? The “right” answer is 50/50. But that’s crazy, as the odds of 99 heads in a row with a fair coin are less than one over the number of atoms in the universe. Instead, one should revise one’s assumption that it was a fair coin. The same is true of the PD with repeat games. You don’t know how someone else will look at the problem. You don’t know their “model.” So by all means try out collusion first, you can always adjust your strategy later. BTW, regarding your opponent /partner remark, I made a similar remark in my post (play “against” i.e. “with” someone else.).

    Daniel, I agree.

    JohnW, Ok, I had misunderstood the original proposal.

    david, You said;

    “This accounts for the numerous, numerous violations of thick-rational solutions to lab experiments; presumably experimentees who have been sufficiently isolated begin to play according to the thick-rational account. IIRC Binmore claims that this is so.”

    Do these experiments violate rationality, or do they merely violate the assumption of selfishness?

    Bob, you said;

    “This is not a prisoner’s dilemma. I would definitely use it in class if I were still teaching game theory, but I wouldn’t do it anywhere near the prisoner’s dilemma so as not to confuse the students. (In fact I wouldn’t let them visit this blog at all.)”

    Yes, both you and Brad DeLong.
    Seriously, others did mention it is not a true PD.

    rob, Good point.

    rob#2, I think it is a debatable proposition as to whether she behaved unethically. I don’t have a problem with her behavior as it was actually a zero sum game for society, as someone pointed out in an earlier comment. But I can see how many would view it as unethical, as many believe that there is more of an ethical obligation toward those we interact with face to face, as compared to strangers out of sight. Who would you feel more of a social obligation to help; a 7 year old girl lying sick in the gutter outside your house, or a seven year old girl lying sick somewhere in central Africa?

    Current, I haven’t read Binmore, but in generally many of the so-called anomalies are practices that make sense in every day life (where games are repeated) but might not make sense in the specific experiment. Thus it is actually questionable as to whether experiments show that people are irrational in real life. Where irrationality does exist, it may be a conflict from evolved behavoir under Stone Age conditions, and sensible behavior in a modern market economy. That’s were we need cultural change.

    Bob, the rest of my post explains my “pride”. I had to throw you off with the title, so that people would enjoy the surprise even more. Is “balls of steal” better?

    BobGillette, My philosopher friend says the Golden Rule is roughly “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In other words treat your fellow humans with the same consideration you treat yourself. That seems very utilitarian to me, although it actually depends on how one defines ‘utility.’ In any case, utilitarianism is definitely consequentialist, and I think the GR is as well. BTW, he agrees with me, he also regards the GR as consequentialist. You should judge actions based on their consequences for society as a whole.

  31. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    27. October 2009 at 18:04

    Bob Murphy: “(In fact I wouldn’t let them [the students] visit this blog at all.)”

    Spoken like a true Paternalist!

    David: Re “trembling hands”… Yes, and thank you for the link.

  32. Gravatar of Blackadder Blackadder
    27. October 2009 at 18:41

    You want to pick share, but you also want to seem sketchy about which you are planning on picking… so they also pick share. If it seems you are certain on picking share, they are more likely to pick steal.

    If people were only concerned with their payout, then everyone would pick steal. In reality, however, people aren’t simply concerned about maximizing payout. They would prefer a share/share vote to them stealing all the money, because if they steal everything then they are a bit of a jerk and most people don’t want that. On the other hand, most people prefer being a jerk to being a sucker, which is what you are if you vote to share and the other guy votes steal. So if you want to split the money, you want to do everything you can to convince the other guy that you will vote share. Leaving any doubt in his mind is a surefire way to go home with nothing.

  33. Gravatar of Current Current
    28. October 2009 at 07:15

    Scott: “I could read that book about pickup lines, and still be totally unable to deliver them in a bar. The “ladies” probably sense that the guys have “balls of steal” if they are willing to spout such nonsense. And don’t people get ahead in politics and business (sales) by spounting nonsense? So maybe the ladies knew what they were falling for.”

    Yes, there could be something in that theory.

    Scott: “I haven’t read Binmore, but in generally many of the so-called anomalies are practices that make sense in every day life (where games are repeated) but might not make sense in the specific experiment. Thus it is actually questionable as to whether experiments show that people are irrational in real life.

    I haven’t read Binmore either. Games like this though are a sub-set of decision making problems. Tversky and Kahneman occasionally point out that many of the “biases” they identify are the right way to act in common circumstances. Hayek and Jeffrey Friedman give reasons for why certain biases may be the right way to act in common circumstances.

    Scott: “Where irrationality does exist, it may be a conflict from evolved behavoir under Stone Age conditions, and sensible behavior in a modern market economy. That’s were we need cultural change.”

    Yes, and that’s the problem with using restricted experiments or restricted theory to examine this sort of thing.

    This problem goes all the way back to Hume’s problems with cause and effect. No line of cause and effect is certain, that is, no theory is certain. Each theory must be built up from a larger body of evidence. It’s never a case of one experiment being viewed on it’s own, it can’t be.

    We have the same sort of problem when we look back at the theorizing that we each do. We can’t really say that one piece of it is wrong on the basis of a particular experiment, or even a large collection. The same is true of theoretical results from game theory.

  34. Gravatar of rob rob
    28. October 2009 at 12:53

    Scott, you said:

    “I think it is a debatable proposition as to whether she behaved unethically. I don’t have a problem with her behavior as it was actually a zero sum game for society…”

    But by this same “zero sum” logic the traditional confidence man is not unethical either. If I travel from town to town charging thousands of dollars per lecture in hotel conference rooms claiming to teach the secrets of how to get rich in the stock market, knowing that my advice is worthless — is that not unethical? It is a zero sum game for society if I get rich selling snake oil, isn’t it?

  35. Gravatar of rob rob
    28. October 2009 at 15:21

    If I murder the conman trying to take my dad’s retirement money, are we agreed that that is zero sum? What are your thoughts on Raskalnikov?

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. October 2009 at 17:26

    Current, I agree with all of those observations.

    rob, No, it is unethical because it is not a zero sum game. Their loss is greater than your gain, as you devote precious time to the scam that could have been used in more useful occupations. Like being a dog psychologist. Also, they will devote resources to try to avoid being scammed. Gary Becker pointed out that buglary is not zero sum, as people spend money trying not to be buglarized.

    rob#2, I don’t see how murder is zero sum, as someone loses a life. That’s what economists call a deadweight loss. Pun intended. Maybe I missed something there.

  37. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    28. October 2009 at 17:30

    “No, it is unethical because it is not a zero sum game.”
    “Gary Becker pointed out that buglary is not zero sum, as people spend money trying not to be buglarized.”

    Scott, If you apply your reasoning, exactly, about what makes things immoral, then taxes are immoral, as people spend money trying to avoid getting taxed. While ancaps around here think that is true, I don’t suspect you are one of them.

  38. Gravatar of rob rob
    29. October 2009 at 17:24

    i am trying to understand this strange, economic way of thinking about ethics. it sounds like intentions dont matter. but if the concept of intentions dissappears doesnt the concept of ethics dissappear with it? nietzchie sez morality was initially judged based upon consequences and that it was a platonic corruption to judge morality by intentions.

    but what is your ehtical take on raskalnikov, as in dostoevski’s anti-hero?

    at one time i threatened to kill a certain popular stock market charleton if he took a penny of my dad’s money. the threat succeeded, but if it hadnt and i had carried through with the murder i believe i would have been justified.

  39. Gravatar of rob rob
    29. October 2009 at 18:07

    when i engage in the market, i am only concerned with making money. it has occured to me often that the easiest way to get rich is to convince others they can get rich, but even tho i work in sales i cant abide. my job is about 50% prevarication, but i dont target suckers, unless exxonmobile can be considered a sucker (they can be). but i consider myself an unethical 50% corporate whore. to me my ethics is my honesty (which may only be 50%) am I wrong? is prevaricsation moral?

  40. Gravatar of rob rob
    29. October 2009 at 18:16

    my point was I believe I could make millions if I pretended to be a stock market guru, but it is my conscience of a Krugman that prevents me.

  41. Gravatar of rob rob
    29. October 2009 at 18:22

    ok, that and my alcoholism.

  42. Gravatar of chug chug
    30. October 2009 at 05:11

    That sap believed he was going to get 50,000 pounds AND get laid, too. Sap.

    The more I read this thread, the more I suspect that this gameshow is an elaborate attempt to get serious people to make as many unintended double entendres as possible.

    Great video and great thread. Thanks Scott!

  43. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    30. October 2009 at 10:57

    Doc Merlin, I didn’t say a deadweight loss always makes an activity immoral, I said there is a deadweight loss, it isn’t just redistribution. If the government can spend money on activities that are very necessary or beneficial, then it can be justified. But the bar is high, a government activity might have to produce $1.50 or $2.00 in benefits for each dollar spent.

    Boy my spelling is getting bad–I said “buglary” twice!

    rob, I see morality as part of the incentive system. We shun people who engage in activities harmful to society, because the fear of shunning will deter that behavior. Now I don’t think most people think of things that way, rather we are evolved to think that murder is objectively wrong, apart from the fact that most of us regard it as wrong. Many people don’t like my view of morality because it makes it sound like a “mere opinion.” But unless you believe in God, human opinions are the most important things in the universe, so they are not at all unimportant.

    Yes, I think murder is wrong. Except when it has utilitarian net benefits. If I could go back in time I’d try to murder Hitler. For all sorts of pragmatic reasons, however, it is almost always better to leave punishment to the government. I would recommend you don’t murder your father’s investment adviser.

    rob#2, It’s hard for me to give someone advice without knowing more about the situation. In some cultures it’s assumed that you will try to say you are great in a job interview, in other cultures it is frowned upon. To some extent you need to adapt to the culture, as others will judge your behavior on that basis. I’m glad you are at least honest, as I’d hate I job where I was always lying. If I was selling my house I would not feel obliged to describe every tiny little defect, but would feel obligated if I knew that was a gas leak that might cause an explosion in a few weeks. I base this partly on the fact that I think in most cases that would be the buyer’s expectation, on both the tiny defects and the gas leak. On the other hand if I sold shares of common stock, then I don’t even know the buyer, and its commonly understood as “caveat emptor.” I suppose there are utilitarian reasons for different practices in different industries.

    chug. Thanks for the support.

  44. Gravatar of Seamus Coffey Seamus Coffey
    5. April 2010 at 10:36

    A short paper using this TV show as a natural experiment of the Prisoner’s Dilemma can be accessed at:

    Economic Incentives – The Goldenballs Dilemma

    The conclusion: Gender, age, occupation and hair colour! matter.

  45. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. April 2010 at 15:34

    Thanks Seamus, The 48% figure is quite interesting. That’s what makes this game so fascinating–it is very hard to predict, despite the fact that one of the two strategies would seem superior at first glance.

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