Game theory of cheating, cigarette advertisements and boarding buses

Malcolm Gladwell tells a fascinating story about the game theory behind cigarette companies and why they were happy when cigarette advertising was banned in the USA.

You see, the problem was that cigarette advertising was not so effective to win over new customers. The biggest problem was that if one company was doing it and your company was not doing it then it would hurt your business. It would be nice if all the companies could agree to quit advertising but that was not going to happen.

When the U.S. government finally banned it then the problem was solved for all the companies, no one was doing it.

The same game theory applies in cheating in schools.

If students, teachers and administrators believe that everyone else is cheating and thus getting higher scores, there is a pressure to cheat whether you want to or not. You have to cheat to just reach the average.

Let’s look at another example, the buses or subways in China.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like to push and shove to get into a bus. I like to line up and board in an orderly manner. It seems more civilized. I don’t mind standing at the end of the line and waiting my turn.

But there are times and situations when if you don’t push in you will never get in and I mean never until maybe late at night when the rush hour is over. At the same time, if you push in, no one blames you. In fact, they think you are lacking in motivation if you don’t push in at least a little.

Of course there are strategies. Leave earlier. Leave later. Leave China.

Alternatively the company could set up some barriers to force everyone to stand in line. Again this takes the lining up responsibility out of the hands of the people and compels them to board in an orderly manner.

Coming back to the cheating situation, the best way to deal with it is to make it as impossible as possible. We will never eliminate it but we can put into effect some methods that will eliminate 95% or more of it. This can be accomplished in simple ways and the outcome is beneficial to us and our students.


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