The Prisoner's Dilemma Makes a Reality TV Appearance

Once in a while, something happens in the real world that brings a flurry of e-mail to the Freakonomics office. If, for instance, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or at least a version thereof, makes an appearance on a network TV show.

The recent season finale of ABC’s reality show The Bachelor Pad featured an interesting twist. When it came time to award the show’s final $250,000 prize, the two finalists, Dave and Natalie, “were forced to go into separate rooms and decide whether they wanted to ‘keep’ or ‘share’ the final prize. If they both picked ‘share’, the money would be split evenly between them ($125,000 each). If only one picked ‘share’ and the other ‘keep,’ the keeper gets the entire prize ($250,000) and the other, we’ll call them the weeper, gets nothing. If they both pick ‘keep,’ then neither gets the cash and it is split among the other losing contestants (about $14,000 each).”

Wondering what happened? Take a look:

Harrison Brookie points to a few important differences between the standard prisoner’s dilemma and the reality TV version: “[T]he rules were explained while both contestants were sitting next to each other. Immediately they both made eye contact, as if to reassure each other of their relationship … Also, the original game takes place in a private interrogation room.”

(HT: Jamie Nopper, Levi Funk, and a few others – thanks!)

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  1. Matt says:

    Another important distinctive in this case is the awareness of the contestants of the possible impact of their decisions on the “brand value” accumulated by their participation up to that point in the media event. There was more at stake than one relationship and cash.

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  2. Raymond says:

    Wasn’t there a game show that did the Prisoner’s Dilemma regularly at the end of the show?

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  3. Chap says:

    This is almost exactly the same scenario as described in “The Art of Strategy” by Dixit and Nalebuff, where they reference the TV show Friend vs Foe. Their comment was that a surprising amount of contestants did what Dave and Natalie did too.

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  4. Richard Hawkins says:

    I like this one

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  5. Matt Bruce says:

    Have people already forgotten the game show Friend or Foe? Hosted by Kennedy (the former MTV VJ)!

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  6. Jimmy says:

    The decision matrix was completely even from a dollar perspective, which made it a lot less interesting. To normal people, the difference between 0 and 125K is a lot more than 125K to 250K. On top of that, there was the actual relationship between them to consider, which made the share decision really, really easy.

    They should have made the individual payoff a lot higher ($1 million) as to really tempt them and the mutual destruction much worse. So something like:

    Two “SHARE” => $75K for each contestant.
    One “SHARE”, One “KEEP” => $1 Million for the “KEEP” contestant
    Two “KEEP” => nothing for either of them.

    That would be a far more interesting decision.

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  7. Cheez says:

    According to the prisonner’s dilemma, the betrayal strategy strictly dominates the cooperation strategy, i.e. no matter what the other player decides to do, you maximize your outcome by betraying.

    However, in this case, if player 1 decides to keep the money (betraying player 2), then player 2 is indifferent between sharing and keeping, since he doesn’t get any money anyway. He may even be more pleased to see player 1 leaving with the money instead of giving money to all the other contestants…

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  8. Brandon says:

    Another big difference is that with the nature of their pre-existing relationship, and because there is only reward at stake as opposed to punishment, they might each rather the other person gets the money than neither of them.

    As in, even if he assumes she will choose keep, he still chooses share because he would prefer she gets the money instead of the remaining competitors. And vice versa. Voila, they both share.

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