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March 19, 2007 » 10:30 pm

The Jeopardy Dilemma

Speaking of the Banana Hoarding Problem and other real-life variants of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, something very interesting happened on the game show, Jeopardy, last Friday. For the first time in its 23 year history, the show ended in a tie.    (M0C)

What was really interesting was how it all happened. Scott Weiss, the defending champion, was in first place with $13,400. The other two contestants were tied with $8,000. Scott was assured the win if he answered the question right. All he had to do was bet $2,601, which would have given him $16,001 and which would have made it statistically impossible for his competition to catch up.    (M0D)

But Scott didn’t bet $2,601. He bet $2,600.    (M0E)

Had Scott won, he would have walked away with $16,000 and returned to play another day. His competition would have gone home with $2,000 in their pockets. With the tie, all three won $16,000, and they all returned to play again.    (M0F)

Why did Scott go for the tie rather than the win? His friend, Francis Heaney, had this to say:    (M0G)

Our first thought was “Why did he do that?” but it didn’t take us very long at all to figure out, well, he must have just thought, “Hey! Wouldn’t it be nice if we all won $16,000?” At a cost to himself of one dollar, he got to give two other people an extra $14,000. (I’m assuming the other guys would have both received $2,000 if they’d tied for the second-place prize.) Yay for altruism! Everybody wins! Now all of America knows what everyone who’s met Scott knows: he is one of the nicest people alive.    (M0H)

This wasn’t quite the Prisoner’s Dilemma. There weren’t strong disincentives to tie. He was still the defending champion, and he still won the money (minus a dollar). He could have actually won quite a bit more money if he was more of a risk-taker, but in reality, that was probably the correct bet (minus a dollar).    (M0I)

Plus, the incentives were pretty compelling. He turned an ordinary moment into a special one and shared it with two other people, perhaps sparking a friendship that might not otherwise have happened.    (M0J)

All that said, it was an extraordinary move on Scott’s part. He could not have planned it in advance, and the pressure of the moment must have been high. To have done something like that more or less spontaneously was very, very cool.    (M0K)

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