Will a Nobel Prize-winning theory of human behavior hold true in everyday situations? Is it a successful formula for people trying to lose weight or search for a stranger? Two extraordinary experiments put the theory to the test.
If you have no idea who people are or what they look like, how would you find them?
That was the challenge facing six pairs of volunteers taking part in a social experiment at six different locations around Washington, D.C.: the National Cathedral, the National Zoo, RFK Stadium, on a shuttle flight from New York to Reagan National Airport, on a commuter train from Maryland to D.C.'s Union Station, and on a boat cruising up the Potomac to the docks in Georgetown. The instructions were simple:
There is another pair of people looking for you today, somewhere in Washington. They are strangers to you, as you are to them. Your job is to find them. How you do it is completely up to you.
"Primetime" gave each pair $100 for expenses, and told them to keep in mind three questions:
Where will you meet them?
At what time will you meet them?
How will you recognize one another?
Yale professor Barry Nalebuff summed up the enormity of the challenge by saying, "Look, it's hard enough to find somebody in Bloomingdale's!"
But -- as he tells students in his classes at the Yale School of Management -- there is a way for them to solve the problem. They can use game theory.
Game theory is a Nobel Prize-winning idea. "It is the science of strategy," says Nalebuff. "It's recognizing that the success of what you do depends on what other people do."
In the movie "A Beautiful Mind," the idea is demonstrated when Russell Crowe (playing mathematician John Nash) has a moment of inspiration in a bar. He tells his friends if they all try to ask out a pretty blonde who has walked in with her friends, none of them will get a date because they will block one another, and the other women will feel like second choices.
However, he says, if none of them go after the blonde, they will all get dates. This simple scenario is the heart of the theory that won Nash the Nobel Prize in economics.
Nalebuff says the idea that everyone in a group can end up satisfied with the outcome of an interaction is known as the Nash equilibrium.
In "Primetime's" experiment, that's whats going on. Each of the pairs must somehow coordinate their actions for a mutually beneficial outcome.
They must put themselves in the other person's shoes, and act according to what they guess another person would do. That is possible, according to Nalebuff, because in every society there are certain "focal points" we all have in common.
In this case, though there are many places someone could go, there are really only a few that you would expect a stranger would also think of.
This notion comes into play all the time. For instance, if you're on eBay and thinking of bidding on an item, you are always thinking about a stranger's actions. Should I bid high to make the other person back off? Should I bid at the last minute so the other person can't follow my bid? How will my actions affect theirs? What will they do?
The Numbers Game
Nalebuff also says that focal points aren't limited to locations or places. For instance, he says, we all tend to think of certain numbers as distinct from all others. Nalebuff says this is why if you want to quit smoking, it is always best to go cold turkey.
Zero is a number that anyone can understand. Any other number is less effective. If you say, 'I'll cut back to two cigarettes ' well, why not three, or four?
That's why Nalebuff guesses that most people in our game will pick noon as the time to meet. It's the only time that he says would stand out to everyone.
Of course, theory is one thing … reality another. It's easy to think like another person, but in this game our players win only if they actually find one another. Can they?
So, What Happened?
Five of the six pairs ended up connecting near the Washington Monument. Each team spent a lot of time running around to various other monuments, with the idea of leaving messages for someone else to find if they also came by there, but none ever stayed in one place for very long.
However, with noon approaching, all but one of the teams somehow congregated at the Washington Monument. Three teams found each other at the base of the obelisk, two others ran into each other on the mall approaching the monument. As Professor Nalebuff describes it, luck does play a role in Game Theory: "Luck favors the prepared mind!" he said.
As for the final team, which began the day by being dropped off at the docks in Georgetown, they completed a huge circle, and ended up back where they started.