A letter to ‘Person A’: the power of an ESI

J. S. Allen, a senior television writing and production major

Guest column by J. S. Allen, a senior television writing and production major

Dear Person A,

On a Tuesday morning when I got an email inviting me to participate in an Economic Science Institute (ESI) experiment, I was excited. I love participating in these experiments because they are a random infusion of cash.

You show up, do some mindless thinking and clicking, and you walk away with money. In the past four years, I’ve participated in probably upwards of 20 different experiments, and I tend to do fairly well for myself. I only have fond memories of those blandly lit, cubical-filled rooms … until my last experiment.

The experiment was simple. Fate decided that you would be a Person A, I would be a Person B and we would be each other’s. Each period, you received $5. Then you had the option to keep a portion of that money in your bank personal account and give the rest to me.

With the money you gave to me, I had the option to put that money in a joint account or my personal account. The design of the experiment encouraged me to keep money in the joint account, because that money would be multiplied each round and exponentially increase.

Then, after six periods, I would be given the power to divide up the money that accumulated in our joint account between the two of us. At any point during the experiment, you had the power to dissolve our joint account, and in doing so you would get 40 percent of the saving, and I would get 60 percent.

I keep trying to validate myself, trying to justify why it is OK for me to be greedy, why it is OK for there to be such a great disparity between me and you. Of course, this is just an experiment and the financial incentive is the only way to bring in participants. So, when we both walked into the room, we both had equal chances of being put in the favorable situation that I found myself in. I tried to put the blame on you for my faults. I deflected my villain-like behavior onto you because of your actions.

Each period when you could have given me $5 to put into the joint account, you only gave me four and kept one for yourself. Why did you do this? That one dollar in the experiment translates to 10 cents in terms of the real payouts at the end of the experiment. The money was irrelevant but the message that it sent was not. You didn’t trust me.

Over the course of the six periods, we were incredibly lucky. We had favorable multipliers in our joint account. If you had trusted me completely, you would have given me the full $5 each period. I still would have put all of that money in the joint account. Therefore, we could have made even more money together. That additional dollar that you held out from me each round would have multiplied again and again and could have made us more money. Maybe, if you gave that dollar to me, I would not have kept more than a thousand times what I gave to you. Your slow distrust of me over time festered like a medieval wound. So in that pivotal moment when I had to decide how much money I would keep and how much I would give to you, all I could think about was that each period instead exponentially increasing our profits, you pocketed 10 cents.

Ten lousy cents each period over the course of the six periods growing to a whopping total of 60 cents. You can’t even send two letters with 60 cents. What kind of logic were you working with? Did you not understand the experiment? Did you not want to make more money?

I answered that last question for you and your answer was, “Yes, I don’t want to make more money.” And then something came over me. This feeling that I never felt before. I didn’t just want to give you nothing, I wanted you to know that I thought about screwing you over and made the conscious decision to do so. Since each period you were pocketing 10 cents, I found it appropriate that ten cents be the amount of money that I return to you while I kept more than $100 for myself.

Graphic by J.S. Allen

I’m not proud of what I did, but the feeling of being handed cash that you did minimal work to receive is just too good. Under the cloak of anonymity, I played an active role in making your day worse. You made 6.4 percent of what I made in the same amount of time. That should be an atrocity. When I walked out of that building with all that money in my hands, I knew that my logic was just as flawed as yours. You pocketing ten cents each round, despite it being minuscule in the scheme of what could have been, was just your method of ensuring that you walked away with something, which is simply what everyone wants.

Nobody wants to be left behind and forgotten while their peers reap the rewards of success. This is the paradox I am stuck in now. Both of our logics apply and contradict each other. In the same stroke that you were looking out for yourself, so was I. In looking out for yourself, you hurt the team. Then, I felt like I wanted to hurt you.

I am sorry, Person A, I truly am. This experiment did more for me than the experimenter’s intention. It showed me a darker side of myself that I know I need to be more conscious of. So I also want to thank you Person A. Thank you for suffering on my behalf. I hope that in your next ESI you get to be Person B because I know that someday soon, I’ll find myself in your shoes.

Love always,

Person B


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