Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Economic Analysis of CBS's "The Briefcase"

Last month, CBS debuted new reality show The Briefcase. The basic premise is this: in each episode, two American families each receive a briefcase containing $101,000. $1,000 of the money is for each family to have a mini-spending spree at the beginning of the show. Each family may then keep all of the remaining $100,000, give away some of it "to help another family in need", or give away all of it. The catch is that each of the two families, if it chooses to give away money, would be giving to the other family. Each family learns bits and pieces about the other via text from the show's narrators, but never learns the other family has received a briefcase or is part of the challenge.

The families receive 72 hours to make their decisions. Throughout the 72 hours, there are three opportunities for individual people to make donations into the briefcase. Once money has been deposited, it is marked for the other family at the end of the 72-hour period. It can be withdrawn during future bank visits, though, making the first two visits pointless except for causing marital spats. On the plus side, each couple gets to visit the other's house, meaning Week 1's contestants got free trips to New Hampshire or North Carolina, and Week 2's contestants got free trips to Maryland and the Florida Keys. The families do the final swap in person, presumably to make things more suspenseful, and in Los Angeles, because that is where TV happens, I suppose.

Right from the start, the emotional aspect of the show is clear. To quote the main characters from the first episode:

"Obviously, you want to make more money to provide for your kids." -Joe Bergin

"We do have a lot." -Kim Bergin, referring to their family

"Because of ongoing medical conditions, [Iraq war hero] Dave [Bronson] is unable to work." -show's narrator

"My goal is to do what I have to do to take care of my family." -Cara Bronson

Reviews have been mixed, to be generous. Mortgage Fraud Investors (Miami), not usually the types to comment on TV shows, called it "poverty porn".  The Atlantic, which comments on pop culture far more often, went with a more intellectual tack, comparing Victorian attitudes toward poverty with the show a couple days ago. It is easy to moralize about reality TV, about debt, or about the ethics of televising problems. Enough people are doing that, so I will not.

What I will add is completely different. "Logic has set in, and emotion has gone," says Joe Bergin partway through the first episode. "Amanda's heart is led by her emotions and I need to get her to see logic and reason," says John Musolino in the second episode. Turns out there is a lot of logic behind this show.


Last fall, I administered a self-written variation of the famous Ultimatum Game. This is a simple sender-responder game. The sender receives an amount of money $X and then is allowed to give any amount of it to the responder. The responder may then either (a) accept the offer, or (b) reject the offer. Rejection leads to each player receiving $0. The game ends either way.

Any suspense that emerges during the Ultimatum Game is based on the responder's ability to punish the sender. Without that ability, the responder has no way to get anything from the sender. The ability to punish could hypothetically induce the sender to send all but $1, or 1 cent, or the lowest denomination it can keep.

The Briefcase is a real-life application of the similar Dictator Game. This is an even simpler sender-responder game. The sender receives an amount of money $X and then is allowed to give any amount of it to the responder. The responder must accept that much money, and the game ends. From an academic perspective, the Ultimatum Game is only mildly interesting, and the Dictator Game is not interesting at all.

With complete information, each family should predict what the other family will give and then give the same amount, leaving each family with $100,000 of distributable funds. This presumes each family is equally deserving of the money, which I think is a nice thing to believe. Each is sympathetic - if a family on this show were not sympathetic, CBS would have a potentially offensive show that is also boring. The problem there is the above rule that each family is in the dark about the other's role in the contest.

Being forced to act as though one is playing the original version of the Dictator Game, the classic best strategy is to give nothing. After all, there is no penalty for doing so. Experimental results yield different strategies, yet adjusting variables such as each player's perception of the other can push things in just about any direction.

"These are real people," says Susan Scott in the second episode. In saying that about the other family, she (accidentally?) identified one of the biggest variables in the Dictator Game. The more deserving the sender feels the responder is, the more money the sender gives on average.

Given the lack of ability for the contestants to interact beyond telling each other information about themselves with no indication of the game everyone is playing, the best thing to do may be to just split the money 50/50. With more information, the show would more resemble the Ultimatum Game.

The show attempts to pull heartstrings. It may for some and not for others. What it shows, perhaps more than anything, is the importance of intraorganizational bargaining. Featuring couples rather than individuals opens up the floor for disagreements within the couples that are, virtually by definition, more interesting than texts and vacant house visits. Seeing how people manage their spouses is more interesting than the Dictator Game.

For a list of the experiential results, click here.


Perhaps the most practical note is reserved for last. CBS obviously does not plan for The Briefcase to have a long run. This may be for the best, as the show is so far best known for controversy, and controversy only powers a product for so long. The most pointed criticism I could level is that the game only works if the contestants do not know all the rules, specifically that the other family has a briefcase as well. If they know the rules, the game turns into the complete information version I explained in the last section. Now that most people will have either seen the show or read about it, it is difficult to imagine CBS finding enough contestants for a second season. The show's fifth and sixth episodes, its two last, air next week.

Another point is that because real names are used, and families play the game knowing they will be televised, there may be substantial social pressure to give away at least most of the money. This taints the results. Rather than a depiction of human nature, The Briefcase may simply be seeking the answer to the question, "Is being known nationwide as 'the people who shorted a family in need' really worth $100,000 to you?" A reputation like that could be career-ending, and $100,000 is not nearly enough for retirement. A CBS Moneywatch columnist presents $500,000 as a bare minimum baseline. Whether it is cruel that it is a CBS Moneywatch article advocating saving at least five times what each family receives on a CBS show is up for debate. To be "that couple who took all $100,000", a more fitting payoff may actually be about $1 million.

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