The only winning move is not to play

The only reality TV that I watch these days is The Biggest Loser. I think it’s a great show with a great cause, and I personally know people that have been affected deeply by it. I finally got around to watching last week’s episode — the one on the cruise ship. Like pretty much all of these reality-based game shows, TBL has challenges where the winner gets certain rewards or advantages at the end of the week. The cruise ship challenge was interesting because it showed how much the contestants are not thinking about the game, they’re just playing it.

The challenge was straightforward: each team member had a tray to deliver to a distant part of the ship, and only one team member could deliver a tray at a time. It was essentially a baton race. Not a lot of deep thought required there, right? The catch came when we found out that the trays were being delivered to their family members, who had been brought to the cruise ship. TBL usually has at least one challenge per season where the reward is that the contestants get to spend an evening with their families.

How did this not send up a red flag in any of the contestants’ brains? They are on a cruise ship. Their families are on the same cruise ship. They have a challenge that involves their families.

Plate. Shrimp. Plate of shrimp.

Now, none of the contestants look like brainiacs, but nor do they seems to be fall-over stupid. I don’t expect any of them to be conversant on game theory, but at least one of them had to have seen A Beautiful Mind. It won awards! How could they not step back and see that only through cooperation could anyone win the challenge.

Essentially, they were in a variation of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. (Yes, yes, I know that ABM didn’t feature this specific problem, but stay with me.)

What wasn’t obvious was that the team that finished the race first didn’t really “win”, just like the defecting prisoner, they just “lost less” by hedging their bets.

How is that, you ask? Instead of calling them the “winning” and “losing” teams, how about I say one was the “finish-first” team and the other was the “finish-last” team. The finish-first team got to spend an evening with their families. Bonus, right? But, the kicker is that the finish-last team got to spend an evening in the gym. Bummer? Maybe, but remember the primary rule in the overall game: lose as much weight as you can. Which team is going to lose more weight? The one in the gym or the one in the restaurant with their families? Get it? When one team finishes first, neither team wins. The finish-first team might get to spend some quality time with a loved one, but they are then condemned to do worse in the weigh-in at the end of the week. (And this was proven to be the case.)

So what if neither team finishes first, and instead they cooperate to finish at the same time?

This is actually more realistic than it sounds. If you watched closely, the two teams were neck-and-neck at the very end of the race. The finish-first contestant and the finish-last contestant crossed paths and almost bumped into each other. That was the perfect opportunity for both of them to pause and think about the consequences of what they were doing.

You basically have two possible outcomes: the producers of the show could let both teams see their families, or they could send both teams to the gym. Given the nature of the show, I think the former option would be the most likely. But, really, the latter solution isn’t any worse. (The perfect solution would be to send the teams and their families to the gym, but I digress.) At the end of the week, both teams would still have a fair chance at the weigh-in, and the “you got to see your family and I didn’t” drama would be avoided.

Point being: In every game, pause for a moment and figure out what it will take to win, not just finish first.

By Rick Osborne

I am a web geek who has been doing this sort of thing entirely too long. I rant, I muse, I whine. That is, I am not at all atypical for my breed.