Last week I wrote about how we’re programmed with distorted ideas of success. All you need is a TV remote to see these warped values in sharp outline, if not high definition.
A while back I caught the last half-hour of the ABC reality TV series Bachelor Pad, my partner’s latest guilty pleasure. This Schadenfreude-fuelled production takes the adult castoffs from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and sticks them in a ritzy villa where they compete in juvenile competitions and form alliances of convenience. It’s like reverse-engineering high school, in the worst sense of the word.
It’s hard to believe any of the participants on Bachelor Pad enter with the intention to compete honourably, considering the series is structured to make this impossible. Backstabbing, bitching, and bad feelings are written into the producers’ template (there wouldn’t be much drama without these elements, obviously).
The premise on the show is that the last couple remaining at the end of the season has a chance to win $250,000. There’s a catch, of course. If they both choose “share,” they split the amount. If they both choose “keep” they walk away with nothing. If one chooses keep and the other chooses share, then the keeper walks away with the total amount.
If you’re familiar with Game Theory, you’ll recognize this as a variant of the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a strategy puzzle involving two imaginary, separately secluded prisoners. They each have to make a decision based on what they think the other will decide, affecting the possibility of freedom for both.
During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the Prisoner’s Dilemma was trotted out by wargamers modelling nuclear war scenarios because it involves the paradox of people consciously navigating toward suboptimal outcomes. You have probably heard the expression “zero-sum game.” In Game Theory, this is a situation “where for one person (or side) to win, another must lose—i.e. that any advantage accrued by one party to the negotiations must be obtained at the expense of the other party(ies),” according to RationalWiki.
Technically speaking, nuclear deterrence functions like the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a non-zero sum game where there were multiple possibilities for nuke-equipped nation states to cooperate for net advantages or net disadvantages. Without cooperating, there was—and is—a real-world risk of a loss for all, in the form of a radioactive wasteland. A “republic of insects and grass” as writer Jonathan Schell once called it.
Anyway, back to the show. On the Bachelor Pad finale, the woman revealed her choice to the studio audience: to share. Her partner then revealed his choice: to keep. He got the whole pot and his partner got nothing. She wore a scowl and began to tear up. He pumped his fist and crowed about being the guy no one expected to win. It was the interpersonal equivalent of a nuclear first strike. Half the audience looked appalled and the other half clapped and cheered his success.
I find it fascinating that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a thought experiment once used for modelling atomic brinkmanship, has become a tool for structuring reality television competitions where players regularly betray one another. The wargamer mentality has descended from the think tank to the boob tube—and couch potatoes regard this Cold War-style voyeurism as normal viewing fare.
It’s long been assumed that the best gambit in repeated plays of the Prisoners Dilemma was to mimic the other players’ behaviour in the next round: to screw the other guy first. Yet last month mathematicians discovered there is another solution for the so-called “Nash equilibrium,” named after John Nash, the game theory guru portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.
I don’t have the space for the details, which I only half-understand myself. It can be summed up by saying that winning isn’t everything. But was it ever? When Nash tested out the Prisoner’s Dilemma on the secretaries at RAND Corporation, the results went sideways. Instead of betraying one another, they went with trust and decided to cooperate.
In other words, real-life people don’t always behave like they’re competitors on reality TV programs or widgets in war-game scenarios. Success doesn’t always depend on someone else’s failure. And the less I watch of television, the more I realize I should avoid it altogether.