Naturally Drunk in Pittsburgh

From the New York Times annual "Ideas" report comes this item about a study of human decisionmaking: Two faculty members (one at CMU and one at Duke) and a grad student conducted a study -- in Pittsburgh -- on how intoxication affects play of a classic problem in game theory, the "ultimatum game." (This part of a larger project to explore the interaction between economic modeling of human behavior, on the one hand, and what we actually know about human behavior and cognition, on the other hand.)

The so-called ultimatum game contains a world of psychological and economic mysteries. In a laboratory setting, one person is given an allotment of money (say, $100) and instructed to offer a second person a portion. If the second player says yes to the offer, both keep the cash. If the second player says no, both walk away with nothing.

The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It's more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?

The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the "proposer" will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger....

[The researchers] took a "data truck" to a strip of bars on the South Side of Pittsburgh (where participants were "often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce") and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.

The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn't fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.

In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.

Or, to reduce this whole thing to non-academic jargon, some psychologists and an economist went to Pittsburgh to find to find out whether long-term considerations or short-term considerations are most prominent in their thinking.

What they found out -- that short-term dominates the long-term -- comes as no surprise to anyone who has observed Pittsburgh's political scene in recent years. (It might be a surprise, however, to learn that the inebriated denizens of the bars of the South Side are reasonably representative of the sober barons of the Golden Triangle.) We also now have a good explanation for Clint Eastwood's popularity.

It also suggests a political strategy for Luke Ravenstahl, who is frequently accused of selling tghe city's out long-term interests for his own short-term political interests: If he is going to play to our collective instinct for revenge, then he might sell his agenda more effectively if he were to act the part.


2 Responses to "Naturally Drunk in Pittsburgh"

Jacob said... 12/14/2009 3:46 PM

Since when do we assume that the "barons of the Golden Triangle" are sober? My guess is that they binge more than the South Side college riffraff.

Anonymous said... 12/24/2009 11:07 AM

Of course people were angry about an offer that they consider cheap--it's insulting.

Better to spit on the case than to accept the insult, is what many people would say.

Me, I say "pass the money, please". After I get the cash I might call you a cheap bastard (here's your anger), or I might just head to Fatheads for a cold one.

I'm not anonymous. I'm zak822.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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