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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.

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