Golden Balls Revisited

Every now and again, an awesome email just pops in unexpectedly. A few months ago, you might remember, I wrote something about an episode of the British game show Golden Balls. Don’t worry, if you missed it, I’ll review here.

The game show is really pretty simple -- or anyway the last part of it is simple. There are two contestants, and at the end of the show there is a kitty of money they have earned. From what I’ve seen this can be as much at 100,000 pounds though it is usually somewhat less than that. Then, each player is given two golden balls. In one golden ball is the word SPLIT. In the other golden ball is the word STEAL.

The players are explained the basic rules. They are each to choose one of the golden balls. If they both choose SPLIT, they will split the money and everyone will cheer. If they both choose STEAL, they will lose everything, neither player will get a penny, and everyone will laugh at them for getting the greedy ending they deserve.

And then, if one chooses SPLIT and the other chooses STEAL -- the person who chooses STEAL gets all the money, and the person who choose SPLIT gets nada.

I included this little handy chart the last time.

…Player A… …Player B… Result Split Split Split the money Steal Split Player A wins all Split Steal Player B wins all Steal Steal No one wins anything The more you think about this arrangement, the more you really how brutal it really is. You are bumping right against human nature. The ideal ending, most believe, is for both players to choose SPLIT. That way, they each get half the money. Everyone is happy. Can’t we get along?

But ask yourself the question: If you KNEW the the other person was going to choose SPLIT, knew it with all your heart, what would you do? Let’s say there was $100,000 in the pot. Choose SPLIT and you get $50,000 and and the enduring respect of your competitor and everyone watching. But choose STEAL and you get $100,000. How much do you care about the person your competing against anyway? You just met that person. Is his or her regard worth an extra $50K?

Before each player chooses in Golden Balls, the competitors are given a couple of minutes to talk to each other. This time is almost always spent with each competitor PLEADING with the other to choose SPLIT. Every emotional string is pulled, every impassioned argument is made. Competitors will talk about how much they need half the money, how close they now feel to their competitor, how deeply they believe in honor and so on and so on and so on.

A typical example was this famous Golden Balls finale for more than 100,000 pounds:

Her: Steven I just hope that those weren’t puppy dog tears, that they were real tears, and you’re genuinely going to split that money.

Him: I am going to split. That’s just ... 50,000 ... that’s just unbelievable. I’m very, very happy to go home with 50,000.

Her: Will you split that money?

Him: If I stole that money, every single person over there would go over here and lynch me.

Her: There’s no way I could ... I mean everyone who knew me would be disgusted if I stole.

Him: When people watch this they’re not going to believe it.

Her: Please ... I ... please ...

Him: Sarah I can look you straight in the eye and tell you that I’m going to split. I swear to you.

Her (Nods).

Him (as they hold the balls): “We’re going home with 50 grand each, I promise you that.”

The ending of this one was more interesting than most, but the lead-up was very similar. To win any money, you need the person to choose the SPLIT ball. To do that, almost everybody tries to bring out the other person’s honor.

And that’s why one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen involved in a game show or really anything else involved a contestant named Nick, who turned the whole idea on its head. When his game with Ibrahim ended, they had 13,600 pounds in the kitty. The Golden Balls were handed out, everyone expected the usual begging and cajoling and promising and so on. Only this time, Nick had a whole different plan.

“Ibrahim,” he said. “I want you to trust me 100%. I’m going to pick the STEAL ball.”

Ibrahim, like everyone else, is entirely baffled by this. “Sorry, you’re going ...”

“I’m going to choose the STEAL ball. ... I want you to do SPLIT and I promise you I’ll split the money with you.”

He was saying he would STEAL ... and split the money after the show. What the heck was this? Ibrahim is NOT happy by this bit, to say the least. At first he kind of tries to talk this through with Nick, sort of making light of it. Nick is having none of it. “Ibrahim,” he says, “if you choose SPLIT I promise you I’ll do that. If you choose STEAL we will both walk away with nothing.”

Ibrahim -- it is beginning to dawn on him that Nick might be serious about this suicidal strategy -- says, “I’ll give you another alternative,” and asks why they don’t just both pick SPLIT, you know, like normal people do. Nick shakes his head, “I’m not going to pick SPLIT, I’m going to pick STEAL. Ibrahim, I’m honestly 100% going to pick STEAL”

And ... you can see Ibrahim getting angrier and angrier. “It’s in your nature to steal?” he asks. .. “I can’t see myself doing that,” he says when Nick asks him again to choose SPLIT so they can divide the money later. ... 'Where is your brains come from?” he asks. ... “I can’t work out ...” he says at one point and you can see he simply cannot understand what the heck Nick is doing.

“If I gave you my word,” Ibrahim says at one point, “and let me tell you what me word means -- my father once said to me, ‘A man who doesn’t keep his word is not a man.’ He’s not worth nothing, not worth a dollar.’”

“I agree,” Nick says. “Ibrahim, I’m going to steal. So you’ve got the choice. You either steal and we both walk away with nothing. Because you know, I’ve told you my intention and I’ve told you I’ll split the money with you.”

“If I gave you my word I’m going to SPLIT, I’m going to split,” Ibrahim said. “And you’re going to take STEAL. ... We’ve lost everything. You’re walking away with my money because you’re an idiot! That’s what you are. You’re an idiot! That’s what you are.” He was basically babbling by the end.

Then it was time for the decision. Ibrahim then chose one ball. I did not notice this the first few times I saw the video. He chose one ball and then he shouted, “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to go with you. I’m going to go with you.” So he had one ball in his hand and, last second, changed his mind and chose the other ball.

Final answer:

Ibrahim chose SPLIT.

And, as it turned out, Nick chose SPLIT too.

“Why did you put me through that?” Ibrahim yelled at Nick as they split the money. Nick just smiled. Great stuff.

Well, the other day I got an email from ... Nick! That is Nick Corrigan, who works in Cardiff at the “Media Academy Cardiff,” which is a non-profit organization to help young people develop skills. Nick is director of the place, meaning he’s pretty much an awesome all-around guy.

Anyway, Nick wrote in to give a little bit of his insight. He said that recently Radiolab, a New York public radio show, did a story on the show and caught up with Ibrahim. Nick hear the show (I have not yet) and learned some fascinating things. For one, he says Ibrahim admitted that he was never going to share (“Which was my initial view of him,” Nick writes). Not only that, but Nick says Ibrahim admitted the whole Dad interlude -- “A man who doesn’t keep his word is not a man” -- was completely fabricated. Ibrahim didn’t even know his father.

This was Nick’s take -- he knew, absolutely knew, that Ibrahim was going to steal and try to get all the money. So Nick explained he wasn’t trying to throw Ibrahim off his game by making him angry. “I didn’t try and tap into his fury,” Nick wrote. “I tried to take the control and power and his greed to be his downfall.”

It was, in retrospect, and even more remarkable strategy than I originally thought. Nick read the situation just right. Ibrahim was never going to split. He was not going to be able to appeal to Ibrahim’s compassion and sense of fair play. And so Nick fashioned this fascinating strategy -- he would convince Ibrahim that he was going to STEAL. He figured Ibrahim would believe THAT readily, would understand that threat completely. He figured Ibrahim would, in the end, completely believe that Nick planned to STEAL and realize that left him only two choice, neither good but one a lot worse than the other:

1. Choose STEAL and lose everything. 2. Choose SPLIT and hope that Nick would actually split the money later. While he would hate doing this, Ibrahim had to realize that this was the only chance he had at any money.

“For me,” Nick wrote, “it was about developing a winning strategy and sticking to it even in adversity (the audience were booing me).”

Well, in the end, this is a big part of the games people play. You pick a strategy. You stick with it even through the boos. It is why I have so much respect for the great organizations, in sports and in life, the ones that don’t make rash decisions based on the pressures of the moment. Lots of organizations and people do the expedient thing for the few cheers and plaudits they will get for a few days or a few weeks. But before too long, their rashness and unwillingness to do the hard thing will cost them. They will not end up winning anything.