TV shows are there to entertain us, right? British TV game show Golden Balls certainly does that. It’s a reflection of the very essence of what humans are about: greed, reciprocity, competitiveness and also collaboration. Like other great game shows, it draws its interest from our real life quandaries.
The game involves a series of rounds that culminate with a final round called ‘Split or Steal’.
Two contestants are given two balls, one marked with the word ‘Split’ and the other ‘Steal’. The contestants secretly chose one of the balls. Before revealing their choice, they can speak to each other. The conversation is basically about the choice of ball because the implications are significant. If they both choose the ball ‘Split’ then they each receive half of a jackpot (it varies in size). If one chooses ‘Steal’ and the other ‘Split’, then the stealer walks away with everything. If they both choose Steal, then they both walk away with nothing.
The game is simple, but its strength lies in that it challenges the very best and worst in human nature. One Golden Ball show shows this wonderfully. A 100,000 pounds jackpot is won by a lady who seemed to promise her male co-contestant a ‘Split’ outcome, but in fact lies, leaving the fellow contestant reeling in pain and humiliation at the thought of losing 50,000 pounds and possibly looking a sucker on national television.
This show has important lessons for us in negotiation because it highlights some of the key issues about whether a negotiator is going to compete (like the lady in the show) or collaborate (like the male contestant). This choice is also fundamental to any negotiation strategy.
Academics studying the outcomes of this TV game show have found interesting results; especially that collaboration is unlikely to be reciprocated when contestants held a grudge against fellow contestants that had tried to oust them from the game in previous rounds. This is something that we see happen in real negotiations too: our experience in previous negotiations feeds through to any current negotiation. If we give someone a reason to get even with us, they normally do. Young male contestants on the show were found to be more competitive than young females yet surprisingly this was reversed in the case of older contestants. Individual players on average choose the ‘split’ 53% of the time. There was little evidence that contestants’ propensity to cooperate depends positively on the likelihood that their opponent will cooperate.
The subject of negotiation and conflict management has attracted the attention of many different branches of science, ranging from behavioural economics to psychology or communication theorists to neurologists, and many more.
Golden Balls draws on the academic area of game theory and especially the classic prisoner’s dilemma to provide us with a highly entertaining show and also a reflection of the reality we can find when we negotiate in our personal and professional lives.
Steven Guest is associate professor of negotiation on the Liderazgo de personas y gestión de equipos program and a lecturer in the department of People Management and Organization at ESADE Business School