The ‘money-request’ game

Manasi Phadke | Updated on June 23, 2021

Can conspiracy theories change human behaviour?

Covid is spawning conspiracy theories by the dozen. For behavioural economist Loukas Balafoutas, this makes for a thrilling research subject. Balafoutas believes that being simply exposed to conspiracy theories can change human behaviour.

In his EconLab at the University of Innsbruck, he divided 144 participants into two groups. One group was shown a three-minute video that suggested the idea that the 1969 moon landing was a fake. Let us call this the ‘treatment’ group. The other group (control group) watched a fairly regular video on the space shuttle programme.

After this three-minute priming, participants from both groups were asked to play the ‘money-request’ game. The idea is fairly simple. In pairs, the participants were asked to simultaneously quote an integer between five and 14. The player quoting the larger integer gets the same amount in euros. But hold on! The guy quoting the lower integer gets the same amount in euros plus an additional 10 euros. If both quote the same number, they get same number of euros as the integer.

What’s your strategy?

So, what will be your strategy? If you quote, say, seven, but your partner quotes six, apart from your muttered curses, he will get 16 euros while you get only seven euros. So, better quote 11, eh? But then, that increases the chances of the partner, by now looking increasingly like a pain in the neck, quoting lower and getting more than you! Even if he quotes 10, he gets 20 euros. I’ll undercut him, you say. And you quote seven again, to find that this partner quoted six.

Drat it! Oh, just wait for the next bid, you think viciously. And cleverly, you quote six, only to find that the pirate sitting opposite you has quoted an unbelievable 14! So he still gets 14 euros, eh? But I got more than’im! But only two euros more, whispers that snake of a voice in your mind. Ah, the many trials and tribulations of betting.

Back to the EconLab, Balafoutas’ findings are interesting. The participants in the control group want to make sure that they make a good sum of money on repeated trials. The treatment group is hungrier. Mere exposure to the three-minute video clip sets them off on a strategic game, wherein not just winning an amount, but rather, winning an amount that is higher than the opponent becomes their objective function. And so, those primed with the conspiracy on moon-landing, landed up quoting lower integers than the control group participants.

I read the research with great interest, and confessedly with some amount of disbelief. Even without having seen that fake moon landing, you would have to be quite loony to quote higher amounts, I thought. But then, perhaps I am not the correct subject for this stuff, I thought, with that superior economist-wala swagger. I asked a few people around me (yes, different age groups, genders and socio-economic groupings — the Hub, the Teenager, the sabziwala, the household help, grocery boy, couple of friends) what integers they would quote in this game, and I realised that everyone was quoting low amounts.

Either you need absolutely zero training to be an economist, my mind told me wildly, or these folks have just seen the fake moon landing. “Did you know that the 1969 moon landing was a fake?” I desperately asked the sabziwala, who, already alarmed at having to play this mental game with me, pretty much flung the aloos outside and quite literally, rocketed from my door.

Perhaps, we Indians are strategic. Think Hindi films in which the villain is shot at the end and the hero goes to rescue the damsel in distress. Even the smallest kid in India knows that the villain is alive! Catch’em young, Bollywood believes. Rest of the strategy comes from watching the insufferable Saas-Bahu dramas.

Think of typical behaviour at the red signal corner. You first bend the bike 150 degrees and crane the neck 30 degrees to achieve full 180-degree spectral vision of life beyond the corner, a feat thus far achieved outside India only by Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. The moment you see a bike parked around the corner innocently, you know the policeman will be parked in another 100 metres or so. Pah! We don’t need no fake moon landing. We play the money-request game en route to office every day.

The writer is a brave economist trying to laugh against the odds

Published on June 23, 2021

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