Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lab rat lost in the maze

Today I earned $21.50 as a guinea pig, a lab rat for the university’s Experimental Economics researchers.  I was told I’d earn $5 for participating, but that I could earn more based on the decisions I made during the study. (They said I couldn’t end up losing money.) This was a New Thing with real incentives, real decisions to be made! Plus I’d be furthering economics knowledge.

Since I was thinking so economically, I decided to walk to UAA and save money on parking. I didn’t want my hard-earned $5 to disappear down a meter. See, already I was practicing my economic decision-making.

Ten of us assembled in the Lab. We were told there’d be a bag of 20 poker chips, some black, some green. A roll of a die would determine how many of what color were in the bag. Then we’d have to draw a chip out.

If we drew out a black chip, we’d earn nothing. If we drew out a green chip, we’d earn $20. If we chose not to draw, we’d get $6. Okay, I could see what was happening: would I take the risk for the green chip or play it safe for the $6?
Then we took a little test about the instructions. We’d get 50¢ for each correct answer. Okay, pretty simple.

But then things got complicated. Another person was added to our scenario: if I were the only one who got a green, I’d get $40! If both of us got a green, we’d split the $40. The rules changed again: if he got the green first, my later green wouldn’t even count … and his first draw was secret. Then it was public. There were five scenarios in all, and things got really confusing.

Each time the rules changed, we had another little test about the instructions. Then we were told the statistical probability of each outcome. There were dozens of probabilities: any green chips, how many green chips, who goes first, etc etc. Tiny, little percentage numbers all over the place. I simplified; if I saw a 38% or better number anywhere, I’d go for it. If it were less than that, I’d decline to draw and get my $6.
We were told we could opt out or change any of our decisions, and then they rolled the dice. It came up that the bag was filled with 20 green chips – all green chips – so almost everyone won!

I have no idea why. I am clueless about the whole thing, but I have my little suspicions. In the psychology experiments I did in college, you’d think the test was about response time, and then you’d find out it was really a test about eye contact. Did the people who were granted eye contact by the tester report they found the experience more pleasant? It could be very devious.

I’m not sure what economic decision-making we demonstrated. I’d guess the professor must be a little irritated that the 20-green-chip option came up so he had to pay out lots of $20 bills. But whether any of what I did showed or didn’t show any rationality, I have no idea.

But this is the odd thing. After it was all done, we had to take a little anonymous, demographic survey: age, gender, student status. (I am SURE I was the only Third Thirder in the room.) But there were three additional questions on the survey: (Try your answers in the comments; spoiler alert below.)
  1. If it takes 5 machines to make 5 widgets in 5 minutes, how long does it take to make 100 widgets?
  2. If the lily pads in a lake double in surface area every day, and the lake is totally covered in 48 days, when is the lake half covered?
  3. If a bat and ball cost $1.10 and the bat is $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
Now why would those questions be there with no names, no identifying numbers? Are they checking if we have minimal intelligence, and why would they do that after we finished the whole green-chip lab?

This is so mysterious to me that on my walk home, I kept wondering about it, rehashing it. Why did they ask those questions afterwards? Why did they also test us on the instructions? I was such a good little lab rat because I didn’t even know what maze I was in. Walking home, pondering, deliberating.

Then it hit me: the stupid ball had to cost 5¢ if the bat was going to be $1 more. $1.05 + 5¢ = $1.10. The only economics question I understood, and I’d gotten it wrong. Was that the test?

1 comment:

  1. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5, then each machine has a rate of 1 per 5 minutes. If you need 100, and you have 5 machines, then each machine has to make 20. At the rate of 1 per 5 minutes, it would take 100 minutes.

    If a lily pad doubles in one day, then it is half as large on the previous day. Thus,if the whole lake is covered on day 48, then the lake is half-covered on day 47.

    I love this kind of problem!


Sharing Button