Monday, July 20, 2015

What to choose?

They call it the "Prisoner's dilemma."

Professor Dylan Selterman teaches Psychology at the University of Maryland, and on his final exam he adds a little bonus question at the end:

     "Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade," the prompt read. "But there's a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points."
So, if everyone in the class is of the mind to be generous and share, everyone will get two points.  But the prof has been springing this deal on his students since 2008, and only once - one time! - has a class had enough people choose the two points so that everyone who scored a 79% got boosted to 81%, and so forth.

Every other time, the students got greedy.  This all reminds us of the old MASH tv episode where they're about out of food and find that Frank Burns has some chocolate bars squirreled away in his jacket and tries to get away with gobbling instead of sharing. There are extra points to be had on this exam for free; no extra work or knowledge is required to get them.

The wise student, the generously-inclined, would vote for the 2 freebies and count on his classmates to do the same, providing a boost for all.  But we now live in a world where everything is seen as "You versus me and I will do anything to win, no matter how small the victory."

Dr Selterman says, "In reality, if too many people overuse a common resource then everyone in the group suffers, not just the selfish ones. This is what I want students to learn from the exercise. Their actions affect others, and vice versa."

And he adds, "It's too big a temptation for some students to take the greater points option, and it seems to me like just a piece of human nature."

"Social dilemmas are like drama."  Rafikian also learned that.
Of course, this being modern times, a student tweeted about this and soon everyone was all a-twitter about the prof and his unusual "mind game."  U of MD student Shahin Rafikian liked the idea of racking up free bonus points, but, "I was first upset because I was thinking, 'I know there's going to be some selfish kids in the class,' but I am still hoping that everyone was choosing two points," said Rafikian, who went with the two-point option.

He learned more than most people from this class, didn't he? Either we're all going to row this boat of life together or it's going to tip over.  That's a point worth two points.

No comments: