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The Golden Rule

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At first glance, Golden Balls was just like all the other game shows—quick-witted host, flashy set, suspenseful music. But underneath all that, each episode asked a very serious question: can you ever really trust another person? Executive producer Andy Rowe explains how the show used a whole lot of money and a simple set of rules to force us to face the fact that being good might not end well.

The result was a show that could shake your faith in humanity—until one mild-mannered fellow unveiled a very unusual strategy, and suddenly, it was a whole new ball game. With help from Nick Corrigan and Ibrahim Hussein, we take a closer look at one of the strangest moments in game show history.

*** After you’ve listened to the story, watch the game for yourself:


Nick Corrigan, Ibrahim Hussein and Andy Rowe

Comments [17]

Alex from Canada

Do not trust females.

Aug. 24 2016 12:22 PM
Dick Swenson from Walla Walla, WA

Sorry, Professor, this is a case of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The fellow (A) who argued so vociferously that he would Steal (even though he verbally promised to share) psychologically forced the person (B) who said he would share to lock himself into that position. B wanted to appear to be cooperative with increasing commitment as time passed. He wanted to be seen as a good guy.

B thus became committed to a position that would make it easy for A to resolve the dilemma at the time of the final act. And to do so with great cunning and grace.

Once there seemed to be a strong commitment (PD generally does not allow such personal interaction prior to a decision) by B, then A had sting confidence that he could act cooperatively, i.e., create a win-win at low risk.

Though this appear to be a aero-sum version, it clearly is not as the expected value is greater tun zero.

Congratulations to a smart player

Aug. 01 2015 02:20 PM
Ben from Michigan, US

This was absolutely brilliant. I feel like this logic problem just blew my mind. I think Nick was right. His strategy brought the best chance for mutual success.

Re: Prof McAdams's point: That's exactly what we're saying. The genius of it is that Nick found the way AROUND the Prisoners Dilemma (or at least, that's what he was saying to Ibrahim.) He was subverting the rules of the show. So yes, the situation given by Nick, that he'd just split the money off the record later, was not a true Prisoners Dilemma. However: in the end, the result actually DID work within the rules. The result worked completely within the bounds of the game. There was no back-alley dealing. They split fair and square. I realize, though, that in the traditional scenario (bargaining for a longer or shorter prison sentence), there's no way one of the players can pose the scenario of skirting the rules.

Re: Victor: Yes, the final round of Golden Balls works just like the US game show Friend or Foe? from the early 2000s. The rest of the game is different between the two, though, according to a quick browse of Wikipedia. Looks like there have been other game shows that used the game theory methodology for the final round in much the same way, too.

Jul. 10 2015 01:51 AM
Rob Cockerham from Sacramento, CA

Nick's strategy was to remove the game show from the decision.
It is socially acceptable to steal someone's money in the context of a game show, but frowned upon and probably illegal to swindle someone outside of the game show.

Jul. 02 2014 06:42 PM

Nicks strategy to walking home with the money was nothing short of spectacular. I can't say I didn't see it coming, considering the hosts build up to Nicks strategy, but he definitely played it right. He did a pretty good job of manipulating Ibrahim, and made him look like kind of a fool in the end (a rich fool), even though that's what was ultimately trying to avoid. I guess the best way to win the game, was to not really play it at all.

Apr. 10 2014 08:53 PM

Nick's strategy reminds me of a group game used to break zero-sum thinking. Its played by groups in multiple rounds. The only goal is to win as much as you can and each round functions the same way as the golden balls. The key to the game is to change the perception of the "you" in the goal from the individual teams to the "you" of all the teams. Once they trust each other, the rounds fly by and every team is raking in the points. Nick forced that trust by making the choice for him.

Apr. 06 2014 03:08 PM

You mentioned that the unedited discussion goes on for 45 minutes. Is this version available anywhere? I would love to watch how the entire discussion went down.

Mar. 31 2014 03:30 PM
Chris Strohm from Lexington, KY

It's too bad the world's nations always seem to be stuck in a "steal-steal" lock.

Mar. 18 2014 05:54 PM
Prof David McAdams from Durham, NC

I use this Golden Balls episode in my game theory class. The key observation (and common mistake when people discuss this game) is that


Why not? If the other player Steals, then you are (financially) indifferent between Sharing or Stealing themselves. By introducing the possibility that he might share the money with Ibrahim, Nick gave Ibrahim a reason to prefer Sharing if Nick chose Steal, turning this into a game in which the only Nash equilibrium is Nick Steal + Ibrahim Share.

The implication is that this "dilemma" is easier to resolve than in an actual Prisoners' Dilemma. Nick's strategy shows one way to do it.

Mar. 10 2014 08:36 AM
Julia from Chicago, IL

I loved this episode -- thank you! Question on the 3rd part of the segment. Does this mean that left-handed people have worse motor skills, and a as a result are worse at language/speech?

Mar. 03 2014 05:35 PM

I'd love to know about the music played between stories on this podcast.

Mar. 03 2014 02:26 PM
Victor Figueroa from Los Angeles, CA

This is an exact copy of the American show Friend or Foe?

Mar. 02 2014 03:47 PM

Abrahim's decision of always choosing "steal" makes no sense and it shows how stupid the human nature is. Naturally we would rather have someone suffer rather than win, even if it's the same outcome for yourself. Brilliant strategy from Nick, doubt I'd see anything like it for another few years or so.

Mar. 01 2014 02:16 AM
darren amos from england

when i first saw this episode on tv it amazed me, it was like nothing i had ever seen in a gameshow before, and that is why i recorded it and uploaded it to youtube 2 years ago. i never expected it to be as popular as it is and to create so many discussions.

Feb. 28 2014 05:50 PM
Abdul-Karim from London UK

I'm British This was weird day, I was asking myself "Why is Radiolab discussing that show back on ITV a few years ago".

But that guy Nick is so clever on Golden Balls, he skewed the other mans decision. He had no guarantee of the opponents decision so he manipulated him. Telling him essentially, 'I'm going to steal from you guaranteed' like the sun will rise tomorrow. The other man was taken back by the honesty it seems. So Nick essentially was always going to split, it seems.


Feb. 27 2014 08:53 PM

Nick's strategy is brilliant.

This game show would have been better if it proceeded in rounds (chances for retaliation, forgiveness, et cetera).

Feb. 27 2014 04:18 PM

Absolutely brilliant strategy. The good guy won by using the zero sum guy's zero-ness against him. Nick is the Bobby Fisher of PD.

With a literal Jedi Mind Trick, Nick showed how the PD game and many of its variants are set up to elicit the zero-ness side of human nature. Any PD variant I've seen that facilitates cooperation usually gives different results. I think you guys have even done shows about that.

Zeros need to be less Zero so humanity can get to the real work. Net positive thinking is the only way to solve the really big problems. In that spirit, I salute Nick Corrigan.

Feb. 26 2014 02:30 AM

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