Split or Steal?

(featured image from http://www.challenge.co.uk/shows/golden-balls.html)

I have always found game shows particularly interesting to watch. Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are all shows that we’ve heard of and chances are, watched – each with its own unique twist in promoting competition between the contestants. Most of these shows keep me entertained through the viewer’s relationship with the contestant (if you were to favor one over the other, for example, and cheered them on while shouting at your TV) but then there’s also the interactions among the different players of the game that keep me hooked. Game shows can bring out both the best and worst of those who play on them and specifically one game show, Golden Balls, actually reminded me of a topic we’ve just recently covered – the state of nature and social contracts.

Golden Balls, a game show that ran for three years in the UK, focused on a great deal of competition in each and every episode where by the end the two remaining contestants would be sitting down, face to face. They would have to prepare to make a choice that would either have them go home with a great deal of money, or “what they came here with, nothing.” The gist of this final phase of the game is hard to describe. Each contestant has two golden balls in front of them; one says “Split” and the other says “Steal”. In the previous segments of the game, these contestants were earning money that would go into a single collective pool. Each player must choose one of their two balls – if they both pick “Split”, they split the pool of money evenly and walk away as winners, which is the ideal choice. If, however, one chooses “Split” and the other chooses “Steal”, the stealing player gets 100% of the money and the splitter gets absolutely nothing. Finally, if both players are looking to be greedy and they both choose “Steal”, they lose out entirely and no money is won by either party – they both go home losers (quite deservingly). At first glance, we can see four distinct outcomes that seem to correlate very closely with the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” seen below.

Obviously, the option that will leave both parties better off would be to share the wealth by both choosing “Split” yet repeatedly you find that each player swears on their life that they are “not that kind of person” that would steal from the other. Even still, the majority of Golden Balls episodes ended with one kind person screwed over by the other seemingly innocent contestant. Watch the very typical situation below.

With so many betrayals like this, can we really agree with Thomas Hobbes when he, in his book Leviathan, talks about the laws of nature? According to him these laws are: one, seek peace, two, covenant in the way of peace, and three, perform covenants made. This is what forms a social contract in Hobbes view, and he goes on to provide the “Fool’s Argument” as a counter-point – essentially saying that there is no real justice and an individual should always act in his or her own self-interest. Hobbes refutes such a statement saying that we aren’t naturally that selfish but assuming we live in a developed society, why are there still those that will “Steal” from the kind person that was willing to “Split”? Is this not a breach of their covenant?

This brings me to one of the most interesting Golden Balls episodes in which Nick Corrigan and Ibrahim Hussein are the remaining two contestants at the final stage. Amazingly, it seems as though Nick found a solution to this example (albeit a very unique one) of the Prisoner’s Dilemma or Assurance Game. Straight off the bat Nick tells Ibrahim that he is 100% going to choose the “Steal” ball and that he wants Ibrahim to choose the “Split” ball. Nick says that this way he’ll get all the money but promises to split the money evenly afterward, thereby avoiding the possibility of either of the two being completely fooled. Of course, Ibrahim is suspicious of Nick and suggests that they simply both choose “Split” to ensure that both contestants receive half of the pool of money without having to risk Nick not splitting it after the game. Nick refuses. Ibrahim tries to assure Nick that he will choose “Split” if he agrees and even tells us a story about his father; “My father once told me that a man who doesn’t keep his word isn’t a man, he isn’t worth nothing.” Nick remains adamant, “Ibrahim, I am going to steal and will split the money with you afterward.” This argument lasted for 45 minutes total (though was cut down significantly in the televised version) and culminated in Ibrahim giving up and going along with Nick’s plan. The reveal came, Ibrahim chose “Split,” and surprisingly so did Nick. Nick guaranteed that both he and Ibrahim received the money by dictating the events of this final segment of the show, and while not applicable to a typical Prisoner’s Dilemma seeing as how the prisoner that is released can’t exactly share his reward with the prisoner stuck in jail, it is nonetheless very fascinating. Later in an interview Ibrahim actually revealed that he was planning on stealing all along and even lied about the story with his father simply because he thought it would be better that they both get nothing than the other player get everything while he is left looking like a fool. Nick understood that in this situation people aren’t likely to “perform covenants made” and takes an alternate route to trick his adversary into acting in a way that, in the end, benefited the both of them.

One thought on “Split or Steal?

  1. This reminds me of another American game show, “Friend or Foe”. It has virtually the same premise, with people deciding whether to split the money (friend) or take it all (foe). This really is an interesting dynamic when comes to game shows, because it utilizes the most basic of human interactions (greed) and turns it into a game show for us to watch. I liked the connection between the game and the dilemma.


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