A Mug's Game

Whether we are old style hunter-gatherers in the forest or on the savannah, or are doing the equivalent in today’s modern, high tech world, cooperation between individuals in a group is a major factor in achieving success. How best to engender that cooperation is the subject matter of many books on the art of management and has turned many management consultants into fat cats. The usual recommended incentives are a blend of bonuses and punishments.

The laboratories most of the work is based on are in the field, with no controls and highly variable inputs. A new study by Pan and Houser of George Mason U (1) was carried out under regular laboratory conditions.  A large group of students were rounded up and handed a wad of experimental ‘green stuff’ to play an investment game. There were multiple rounds and sufficient controls to prevent corporate raids and other such capitalistic activities. The idea was for the groups to ‘invest’ in a project and the winners were the group that invested most generously. The kicker was that the bids were sealed so investment hysteria was out.

Of course games have winners and winners have prizes. In some rounds the prize was ice-cream. High quality of course, as would be suitable for future fat cats. In other rounds, the prizes were decorative mugs, suitable for prominent display on their desks, and of sufficient grandeur to brings ‘oohs and aahs’ from visiting friends and family.

The young women couldn’t get worked up enough to cooperate strongly for mugs. They went for the ice-cream. The young men in stark contrast were ambivalent when ice-cream was the reward, but would all invest heavily to win a trophy mug.

Those mugs would be permanently on display; announcing to the world the high status of those young men as Winners.

The long-term gains of the winning women might start off being on display, but perhaps not permanently after a spell of dieting.

1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0018050#s3

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