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Survivor: Thailand - Game Theory and Helen's Decisionby Jeffrey D. Sadow -- 10/16/2002
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Helen faced a big decision prior to the fourth tribal council.
Should she stick with the other two females and make a girly-girl alliance, or opt out and let the three-man boys club get rid of an exceptionally weak tribe member who should have been ousted back on Day 3?
To understand her decision, we can apply a heuristic technique from the world of decision science called "game theory." In essence, this produces understanding by analyzing the interplay of decision-makers' expectancies in terms of probability of outcomes in a situation of imperfect information.
Perhaps the most well-known example of game theory is in the "prisoner's dilemma." It goes like this: two criminals get caught and are interrogated separately by the police. Each prisoner knows that the police do not have enough evidence to convict them, so if neither confesses, both go free. But the police tell each that if he cooperates his sentence will be half of what it would be should he not confess but the other one does. In essence, by planting seeds of doubt in the mind of each prisoner about the reliability of the other, the police hope to get both to confess and can give them the maximum sentences since they will have implicated themselves without having to cut a break for one to implicate the other silent one. In other words, the police win big and the criminals lose big if their coalition gets broken up.
This game to some degree simulated Helen's situation. She knew the boys were out for Ghandia. Knowing this then sets up a scenario where they could take control and conceivably, if necessary, come after her next. For her group to gain the upper hand, they must stay together, meaning both voting together and not having one of them be voted off.
Of course, the second part of this could not be guaranteed. If she voted with Jan and Ghandia, the best she could hope for was a tie with Clay vs. Ghandia, presumably having some brain-testing tiebreaker, and, let's face it, after Ghandia's previous encounters with challenges requiring brainpower, Helen no doubt had little confidence in Ghandia's ability to win. Thus, on the one hand odds were good that the coalition would be broken up anyway and Helen thrown into the minority and, given the boys' comments, probably the next target. Unless her tribe suddenly got their act together for the next couple of challenges, she was a likely goner - consider this the maximum penalty in her dilemma.
(There's evidence that a switch will come the tribes' ways next episode. But Helen could only have suspected this and not known it with any certainty, so she could not depend upon this to help bail her out of inferior decisions.)
On the other hand, not having confidence that her faction could wrest control (that is, stay together), jumping in with the boys makes perfect sense because the potential penalty for this was much smaller - being voted out after Jan, now hung out to dry. For her not to make the merge now, her tribe has to lose the next two immunity challenges - made less likely on both the physical and mental levels by having Clay rather than Ghandia around - and it buys her a minimum of three more days toward the merge or a switch, as well as potential future brownie points with the boys after the merge for future game playing.
Simply, Helen made the right call by "confessing."
Jeffrey D. Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport where he teaches, among other things, classes in international politics, international organizations, and diplomatic history. He has published in the area of gaming simulations in international politics.
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