UK Game Show Golden Balls: A New Solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Several years ago, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Joel Waldfogel and Matthew W. White, published a fascinating empirical article about the prisoner’s dilemma game embedded in the short-lived U.S. game show “Friend or Foe.”  Their core findings:

Using data from two seasons of a television game show, we provide evidence about how individuals implement conditionally cooperative preferences. We show that (1) contestants forgo large sums of money to be cooperative, (2) players cooperate at heightened levels when their opponents are predictably cooperative, and (3) players whose observable characteristics predict less cooperation fare worse (monetarily) over time, as opponents avoid cooperating with them. 

I always thought it might be nice to update the study to test to see whether different kinds of “cheap talk” were more or less effective in establishing cooperation (ex. Does swearing an oath to God make your promise more credible?). 

It might be time for a follow up: The UK game show “Golden Balls” (sounds like an Austin Power’s character) ends with the same PD conflict – as two contestants have to decide after a 30-second discussion whether to “split” or “steal” the big prize. This clip shows a contestant who devised an amazing (but possibly not repeatable) solution to the dilemma:

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  1. Mike B says:

    You stole this story from Bruce Schneier’s blog. Shenanigans!!!

    You can read his analysis here.

    Here are some questions this raises.

    1) Can this sort of trick work again.
    2) Can you get the same outcome by convincing your opponent you are choosing randomly (ie pull out a coin and flip it). What about random choice with a promise to split post facto?
    3) Can the players form a binding verbal agreement to split the money? They have witnesses and the agreement would be on tape.

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  2. nottom says:

    The first time I heard about “Golden Balls”, I told a co-worker that my strategy would be to tell the other player that I would give them 1/3 of the money, but I was going to steal. I would even go so far as to throw away the share option if it were possible (I’m not sure of exactly how the selection process works). I always wondered if anyone had employed that strategy.

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  3. Brito says:

    This isn’t a true prisoners dilemma because the cost of splitting when the other steals and the cost of stealing when the other steals is the same.

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  4. Matt says:

    This isn’t, strictly speaking, a Prisoner’s Dilemma. Your payoff is the same (o) whether or not your partner defects. This strategy would not be as effective with a pure PD as there is a greater commitment problem for the proposer.

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  5. Jay says:

    I feel a lot of the discussion glosses over the clip that this is not a true PD. In a PD, being betrayed is worse (for the person who cooperated) than the double-defect outcome. Here, if the opponent steals (defects) the outcome for you is 0 either way.

    Moreover, its precisely this discrepancy that Nick’s strategy exploits. If it were a real PD, convincing the other player that you would defect would simply cause them to defect as well. But here, Nick takes advantage of the fact that if he convinces Abraham he will defect, then Abraham is indifferent, since he gets 0 no matter what he does, and can be swayed to cooperate by even a small hope of an unenforceable gift from Nick.

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  6. Ben says:

    There’s already at least one paper written on Golden Balls:

    Would be interesting to look into the “cheap talk” analysis, though.

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  7. Shockwave says:

    The real Prisoner’s Dilemma assumes no communication or side deals between the prisoners, because they’re *prisoners.*

    This is clever, but irrelevant.

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  8. Jim B says:

    An important aspect of this strategy is that Nick ultimately chose the “split” ball. Had he done as he had promised, and chosen the “steal” ball, he ran the risk of losing everything (if Ibrahim had also chosen “steal”). In this case, his bluff had its intended effect and convinced his opponent to choose “split” as well. This was the optimum outcome, because the split was automatic. But choosing “split” gave Nick a shot at half the pot even if Ibrahim had chosen “steal”. Nick could then make a strong moral claim for half of the pot that probably would have been honored – particularly because of the high cost of public shame if Ibrahim refused to share.

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    • JimFive says:

      Interestingly, I think that the next time someone tries this then they HAVE to pick steal because if they don’t their opponent will be able to steal the whole pot from them. I think that the idea that the public commitment might be considered a verbal contract is interesting also.


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    • nobody.really says:

      In a game of chicken, one strategy is to conspicuously throw your steering wheel out of the window. In this manner, your opponent learns that that you’re not going to swerve, and therefore the opponent is confronted with the choice of swerve or crash. Nick engaged in precisely this behavior.

      Wikipedia notes this strategy in discussing “Chicken (the game).”

      “One tactic in the game is for one party to signal their intentions convincingly before the game begins. For example, if one party were to ostensibly disable their steering wheel just before the match, the other party would be compelled to swerve.[12] This shows that, in some circumstances, reducing one’s own options can be a good strategy. One real-world example is a protester who handcuffs himself to an object, so that no threat can be made which would compel him to move (since he cannot move). Another example, taken from fiction, is found in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In that film, the Russians sought to deter American attack by building a “doomsday machine,” a device that would trigger world annihilation if Russia was hit by nuclear weapons or if any attempt were made to disarm it. However, the Russians failed to signal — they deployed their doomsday machine covertly.”

      Note the dynamic: People can benefit from LIMITING their own choices. This arises is a variety of specialized circumstances: The Hatch Act constrains a federal employee from engaging in campaigning – on the theory that this is the best way to keep these employees from being coerced into campaigning. We adopt similar policies regarding prostitution, statutory rape, child labor, etc.

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