Skip to main content

What Does the TV Show Golden Balls Tell Us About Human Cooperation?

Jun 5 2023 • 3 min read

Imagine that you’ve been invited to become a contestant on Golden Balls, the game show that graced the screens of British televisions in the late 2000s.

By far the most memorable part of the show, for those who remember it, was called Split or Steal. It was played by the final two participants, who had to independently decide whether they wanted to split or steal the jackpot.

If both players chose to split, they split the money in half. If one player chose to steal and the other chose to split, the player who chose to steal took the full jackpot and the other person went home with nothing. And if both players chose to steal, they both went home empty-handed.

Now imagine that the jackpot is £10,000. Would you split or steal? Click here to tell us and we’ll post the results at the bottom of the article.

Figure 1. Possible Game Outcomes

On the surface, Split or Steal might just look like an attempt to inject some drama into an otherwise uninspiring game show. Which, in many ways, it was. But it has since captured the attention of several researchers, partly because it created a particular type of dilemma for contestants. And it turns out that it tells us three interesting things about human cooperation.

The first is that, to paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, it is in our nature to be concerned with the fortunes of others. This helps to explain why around half of all Golden Balls participants chose to split, despite the fact that – from a financial perspective – the best option is to steal.

In other words, we are not simply self-interested individuals: we have social instincts that favour cooperation with others. This point has been argued by researchers such as Martin Nowak, David Rand, and Rutger Bregman in recent years.

The second thing that Split or Steal tells us about, if we look closely, is the emotional side of human cooperation.

When both players choose to split, they invariably celebrate together to a chorus of cheers from the audience. When stealing occurs, however, everything changes. The stealer often apologises immediately or turns away, while the betrayed party seethes and the audience groans. These contrasting emotional responses suggest that our emotions play an important role in motivating us to cooperate with those around us.

The third and final thing that Split or Steal tells us is that we can be remarkably imaginative when it comes to convincing others to cooperate with us – as this clip uniquely illustrates. According to some researchers, humans invented things like money and moralising gods for similar purposes.

In summary, Split or Steal tells us about our social instincts, the emotional underpinnings of cooperation, and our creative approaches to cooperating with others – three lessons to take with you should you now choose to descend into the rabbit hole of Split or Steal clips on YouTube.

Read recommended blogs

Revealing the election issues we can all agree on, and those that divide us Revealing the election issues we can all agree on, and those that divide us

In the run-up to the General Election, we have been using CogCo’s ‘ekota’ platform to understand what election issues really matter to people across the UK. Ekota allows participants to give their opinion on a question and vote on other people’s opinions using our intuitive interface. Unlike a standard survey, this enables us to gather...

Jul 1 2024 • 4 min read

Jul 1 2024 • 4 min read

Remembering Michael Mosley Remembering Michael Mosley

We were very sad to hear about the death of Michael Mosley, whom I was fortunate enough to work with back in 2015. We wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Michael, who was a superb science presenter and journalist, and always had a keen interest in how the latest research might translate...

Jun 11 2024 • 3 min read

Jun 11 2024 • 3 min read

What do young behavioural scientists want in a job? What do young behavioural scientists want in a job?

Have you ever wondered what factors are most important to you in a job? Maybe it’s the money? Or the calibre of people you might get to work with? Or perhaps the perks that go along with the role (the travel or the free bar?). Have you also wondered why you have so rarely been...

Apr 17 2024 • 4 min read

Apr 17 2024 • 4 min read

Interested in working with us?

Get in touch at info@cogco.co

Copied to clipboard