Heart of Gold: Game Theory in Game Show “Golden Balls”

Would you trust a complete stranger to cooperate with you when money is on the line? Would you deceive them instead and take the money for yourself? These questions are put to the test on the British TV game show called “Golden Balls”, which ran from 2007 to 2009. After several rounds involving strategizing, cooperating, and lots of golden balls, the final round consists of an all-or-nothing decision between the two finalists. The jackpot will either go to only one of the two contestants, be split in half, or be lost by both players. This is because each finalist has a choice: split or steal.

If it hasn’t become apparent by this point, the decision the contestants are faced with is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. In this final round of “Golden Balls”, each contestant chooses between splitting the money and stealing it. If both parties choose to split, they each get half of the jackpot earnings. If both choose steal, neither player gets any money. But if one contestant chooses split and the other chooses steal, the one who chose to steal gets all the money.

The prisoner’s dilemma has been studied in economics as a way to analyze how people make decisions and choose to cooperate or not. In this situation, when one calculates the average outcomes, it makes more sense to choose to steal. This outcome is reflected when played out, as it is more likely for one or both contestants to choose steal, with the most likely outcome being one steal and one split. However, there are other factors that may influence the players’ decisions. One that is especially relevant in this version of the prisoner’s dilemma is the presence of an audience, which may make contestants think about how others perceive their character based on their decisions (extra-market values). One instance exemplifies this perfectly, where it’s hard not to judge the seemingly innocent contestant who breaks her promise and takes home the entire $100,000 jackpot.

One curious episode of this show involved a very odd tactic, ending with a result that shocked everyone. On this episode, the two finalists, Ibrahim and Nick, began their discussion before choosing to split or steal. Most often on the show, both contestants promise each other that they will choose split, whether that actually happens or not. However, Nick takes a different position. He tells Ibrahim that he is going to choose steal no matter what. This leaves Ibrahim with limited choices. Either he steals and neither of them get anything, or he chooses split, in which case Nick promises to split the money evenly with him after the show. Ibrahim suggests that they both pick split instead, but Nick refuses. Nick’s narrowing of Ibrahim’s decisions combined with his refusal to compromise angers Ibrahim, and the discussion is fairly contentious. In fact, the unedited version of the entire discussion was around 45 minutes long.

Eventually, the host tells them they must make a decision. Nick is set in stone with his decision and Ibrahim is unhappy with his choices. When they open their golden balls to reveal their decisions, Ibrahim has chosen split; Nick has also chosen split. Amid the cheers from the crowd, Ibrahim yells at Nick, “why would you put me through that?” Many would ask the same question. If Nick was going to choose split all along, why would he go to all the work of making Ibrahim think he was going to steal, instead of just agreeing to both split? In a Radiolab interview about this episode, Ibrahim was asked if he would have chosen to split knowing that Nick was also going to split. Ibrahim responds, “no, never.” Even after giving a speech about the value of a man’s word and promising that he will stick to his word, Ibrahim had never intended to cooperate and choose split. It was steal or nothing, because he would rather that both of them walk away without money then be duped into choosing split, only to have all the money taken by the other contestant.

Arguably, this isn’t a “pure” form of the prisoner’s dilemma because the two participants have the ability to discuss with each other before making their decision, it is still an interesting notion that one could be forced to be cooperative when they had only their own interests in mind. When it is mathematically the best choice to choose to steal, this is a clever way to get someone to be benevolent whether they like it or not.

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