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When Do the Rules Allow You to Think Outside the Box?

Andrew Weltchek, http://weltcheklaw.com/, explains Thinking Outside the Box

You want a lawyer who can figure out when the rules allow you to think outside the box.

There’s a public radio show called Radiolab. They did a feature on a game show in England called “Golden Balls,” which had an episode that was put on YouTube and went viral.

The long-running show is an amazing lesson in negotiation. The rules of the game are that contestants play the game for a while to determine the size of the final pot of prize money.

The two remaining contestants have a choice, to pick one of two golden balls: Split or Steal.

  • If they both pick the Split ball, they split the pot. If there’s $100,000, they each get $50,000.
  • If they both pick the Steal ball, meaning each of them wants the entire pot, they get nothing.
  • If one picks the Steal ball and the other picks the Split ball, the stealer gets  everything.

Contestants are able to talk to each other to try to convince the other contestant what to do. Once I heard that, I immediately knew the best strategy. And as I listened to the story, sure enough, my strategy was the one used by the winner.

What struck me was not that I knew how to win this game, but how shocking the winning strategy was to so many people. Even very few students at the Yale business school figure it out, according to a client of mine who shows this YouTube clip to his classes. It just shows you that you want a lawyer who knows when to color outside the lines to win.

Here’s the winning strategy (Spoiler Alert):

The one contestant said to the other guy right off the bat, “I’m going to steal. I’m going to pick the Steal ball. Then, if you pick the Split ball so that I get all the money, I’m going to give you half. I guarantee. I promise you that’s what’s going to happen. You can figure out that if you don’t do that, if you pick the Steal ball, neither of us is going to get anything. There’s no way for you to get anything unless you do what I’m telling you.” The other guy was furious because he knew he had no chance of getting the whole pot. The audience was outraged because they thought it was unfair to box him that way. But it was perfectly legal, that is, within the rules of the game. Just no one had ever done it before. And it worked. The second guy finally picked the Split ball. And the first guy did share. In fact, he picked Split too.

So why is that the best strategy?

As it turns out, all contestants lie. They think that’s the only way to win. They claim they are going to split, and try to convince the other person to pick Split. Then they cheat and pick Steal, and try to get the entire pot.

And that’s right, you shouldn’t trust your opponent. But that doesn’t mean you have to cheat him. It means you want to get into a position where you don’t have to trust him.

You want a strategy that leaves your opponent no good alternative but to cooperate with you. Even if he assumes that you are lying and won’t share the pot, he can’t stop you from getting the pot. He has no good choice but to hope you share.

If you say you will pick Steal and you do and you keep all the money, your opponent can’t win anything. If he or she picks Split, you get everything by picking Steal. If he or she picks Steal, he or she stands to get nothing because you’re picking Steal too — unless you share.

Why don’t more people use this strategy, if it’s the best?

Your risk is that your opponent will choose Steal just to spite you, even though he or she gets nothing. But that’s still less risky than trying to cheat your opponent by lying that you will pick Split.

Your best odds of winning something, rather than nothing, are to be willing to accept half the pot.

Which gets us to lawyers. You want your lawyer to be able to leave your opponent with no good choice but to leave you something rather than nothing. Because that’s less risky than trying to win the whole pot and maybe getting nothing but a lot of legal fees.

Very often, people dismiss offering your opponent a win-win proposition as wishy-washy. But that’s not true. Just like in the Golden Balls game, it is both ruthless and realistic. It was that ruthlessness that infuriated the opponent who had no choice but to share, as well as the audience who thought the winner was somehow being unfair. But he wasn’t being unfair, just smart.

Andrew Weltchek
Weltchek Law

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