Mission Impossible: In Search of Strangers in New York City

ByABC News

March 16, 2006 — -- New York City is a colossal urban beehive, and the perfect setting for a fascinating game about human behavior.

"Primetime" set up a seemingly impossible challenge for six pairs of people in different locations all over Manhattan: Try to find the other couples -- all complete strangers -- with no clues or additional information, just $100 to spend as they wished.

As daunting as the game appears, Yale economics professor Barry Nalebuff doesn't think the players are on a fool's errand. In his classes, he teaches game theory, which uses math to describe and even predict how people will behave in a whole range of situations.

"It [game theory] is the science of strategy. It's recognizing that the success of what you do depends on what other people do," Nalebuff said.

John Nash, the mathematician featured in the movie "A Beautiful Mind," won the Nobel Prize for his work in game theory, proving there's a way for everyone in a group to be happy with the outcome.

Nalebuff says "Primetime's" challenge is an experiment in common perceptions. "Can I think about what you are thinking that I'll do? Can I put myself in your shoes as you are trying to put yourself in my shoes?"

The 12 people, divided into pairs, were set down in different parts of the city.

The teams are initially stumped, but then they start brainstorming, trying to think of common ground. All six teams begin thinking of landmarks and transportation hubs: the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, Penn Station, Times Square.

David and Anthony hit the nail on the head: "They're trying to think of what we would do, and we are trying to think of what they would do," said David.

As Chuck and Brad head to Grand Central Station, they stop to consider another potential problem: How will they recognize these people?

"They will be looking as if they are looking. They will have a vacuous look on their face like we will," Brad reasons.

Brad and Chuck decide to make an announcement on the Grand Central Station loudspeaker: "May I have your attention please. The two people from ABC looking for two other people from ABC. Report to the upper level information booth."

No one responds.

But some of the needles seem to be converging. Two pairs of women -- both from out of town -- are thinking about the Empire State Building. They remember a scene in the movie "Sleepless in Seattle," where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet at the top of the Empire State Building.

In this game, all that matters is if someone else thinks they same way you do. "The success or failure of what you do depends on what other people do and how they react to what you do and [how] you think they are going to react," he said.

Similar situations come up in real life all the time. If you are buying on eBay, should you bid high early or jump in at the last second? It depends on what you believe your competitors are thinking.

In the dating game, do you wait by the phone, waiting for the other person to call, or risk it and call them first?

The same logic applies in more serious "games" -- like war. "Should the allies invade in Normandy or Calais? And if they're going to invade in Normandy, should they pretend that they are going to invade in Normandy?" says Nalebuff.

All six teams narrowed the list of places to meet, but then they had to decide on a time to get there. If you're trying to find a stranger you have to know where -- and when -- to look.

Just as there are landmarks in the physical world, there are natural landmarks in time, with numbers. "We are looking for a clear demarcation that we are not going to cross. Noon is a clear time. Zero is a clear number," says Nalebuff.

Imagine, for instance, that you're trying to quit smoking.

"If I say I'm going to go from a pack a day to three cigarettes a day, three is kind of an arbitrary number -- why not four, why not two?" Nalebuff says. "There's one number that has a real salience to it which is zero. So if you're going to stop smoking, its best to go cold turkey because zero actually has meaning."

Sure enough, almost every one of the couples pick noon -- an "obvious" time, as one of the participants said -- to try and rendezvous.

David and Anthony have chosen Times Square as their location. And just a few blocks away, Ian and Seth are posting signs at the Times Square studios of "Good Morning America."

Jessica and Sarah are also wandering around Times Square, holding up a cardboard sign. They almost pass Ian and Seth near a police booth, but then just miss each other.

Meanwhile, Chuck and Brad have found no one at Grand Central Station or at the New York Public Library. They decide to try the Empire State Building -- where two other teams are already headed.

Less than three hours after starting their searches, three teams are within blocks of one another in Times Square, and the other three are converging on the Empire State Building.

Near, the Empire State Building, Myrna and Cynthia go to a drugstore to buy supplies to tape signs to their clothes and backpacks.

As they make their way up to the 86th-floor viewing platform, Courtney and Lydia are getting out of a cab out front. Not only have they thought of the same place as Myrna and Cynthia, they go for sign-making materials at the same store the other women left just moments before.

And at the same time, Chuck and Brad walk into the lobby of the Empire State Building.

Myrna and Cynthia spend several minutes circling this floor without luck, and as they're about to go to the 102nd-floor observation deck, they see Courtney and Lydia. For the women, the game played out beautifully -- imagining the strategy of the other team and making signs when they got within range.

As one participant said: "Great minds think alike."

Brad and Chuck, too, are making their way to the 86th floor. Less than three hours after they began, three pairs of our strangers are standing in the very same spot.

But over in Times Square, Sarah and Jessica aren't finding anyone. "What if we got a bunch of balloons to draw attention?" says Sarah.

Ian and Seth are thinking the same thing -- they're in a store a few blocks away, buying whistles and air horns, hoping to draw attention to themselves.

Meanwhile, David and Anthony's strategy is to just keep wandering and watching. Suddenly, at one of the busiest crossroads in the world, they stumble upon Sarah and Jessica. All of the excitement attracts a small crowd, which draws the final pair in like magnet.

Remarkably, in the strange magic of this game in a city of millions, all six pairs of strangers found each other in just a matter of a few hours.

Later, the participants said they were surprised at how quickly they found each other.

"It wasn't that all 12 of us congregated at one specific spot," Anthony said. "There were two locations which I thought was more interesting than the fact we all found each other."

And Cynthia said, "I think just the fact that it was something that started out as this impossible task, just ended up so simply!"

And the simple lesson in game theory -- like life -- is that it helps to remember you're not alone in the world.

"They are playing the game, the game of life, whether they want to or not, other people are playing the game too," Nalebuff says. "And if they can understand it a little bit better and be more sophisticated about it, they might do better."

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