Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 62, we use Game Theory to plan movie outings.
“One of the great gifts a movie lover can give another is the title of a wonderful film they have not yet discovered,” noted Roger Ebert, film critic par excellence and lover of all things cinema. As gifts for movie lovers go, a close second you could offer is to just show up for the movie when asked. And to do so without indulging in the customary, nitpicking of movie choice, location, timing and screen. (Always IMAX, when the option presents itself.)
For reasons familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make any plan ever, I absolutely loathe being the one to initiate a movie plan with more than three people. I’d rather not be bothered by the endless negotiations, trade-offs and eventual heartbreak (when the movie gets sold out and you have to start over). By the end of what is a horribly irritating round of calls, texts, and the occasional threats thrown into the mix, I usually end up with a deep dislike, though momentary, for the very people whose company I otherwise genuinely enjoy.
So, let’s see if a smidgen of game theory and a dash of psychology can’t fix this coordination problem for us.
A Clear Dominant Strategy
Game theory tells us that the way two people interact is best characterised by a set of all possible actions, where using a specific set of actions given what the other person does is called a strategy. Before we get into possible strategies, there is one obvious dominant strategy (one that is strictly preferred to all others) that you can employ. This is one that I have often used, especially for movies that I absolutely refuse to miss.
The idea is to declare the movie plan to your friends, with an “I am going to watch this movie, join if you are free” approach. Then leave it to them to show up. However, go with this plan knowing that if nobody shows up, you are going to watch the movie alone.
This works well for me because I am as happy watching movies on my own as I am in a group. However, if you are someone who considers this to be a tremendous social faux pas, then perhaps you should consider one of the other strategies.
Limit the Variables
Start with one person. Two movie choices. Pick one. Then timing options. Followed by the theatre choice. Rinse and repeat this process creating an ever-growing decision tree as you work your way through it.
Yes, I’m in; No, I’m in
Try the Foot-in-the-Door Technique: Get them to agree to something small. Have them say yes. Then ask them to agree to a larger commitment.
For example, tell your friends, “It’s been a while, let’s meet this week.” Then make it the movie plan.
Alternately there is the Door-in-the-Face Technique: Ask for a massive commitment. When they say no, ask for something more realistic and hope they say yes because they feel bad.
For example, ask for a three-movie-marathon commitment. When that is inevitably rejected — How about just one movie instead?
If this conversation is happening over text, I find that this gif works well.
The Availability Heuristic Advantage
The Availability Heuristic is a mental shortcut where we tend to associate ease of recall with importance. As a result, if the only one topic of discussion on your WhatsApp group is Movie X, people are bound to believe that it is important.
Use this to your advantage. Get a discussion going on around the teaser, the poster, trailers no 1, 2,& 3. Share a video of a talk show the stars attended to promote the movie. It should feel like the most important moment for the group is the movie. This also increases the odds that people won’t cancel because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
Using this requires a willingness to lie to your friends. Friend A is less likely to decline or change a plan if they know B, C, D and E have agreed to it. So lie. Convince A to join by telling them that B, C and D are already in. Then use the fact that A is in to convince the B, use A & B to convince C and run this play all the way to Z.
People optimise for their own convenience, the selfish jerks, when the downside is only inconveniencing a few people. But if a large group has agreed to a plan, odds are they would prefer not to inconvenience everyone. And if you have employed FOMO well in the previous step, they’ll change existing plans to join in.
The odds of them talking about who agreed first are slim. But if you do get caught you have two approaches:
1. If the movie is good (fun, brilliant, anything remotely enjoyable): You’ve done them a favour by conning them. Own it.
2. If the movie is bad (boring, dull, ignorant): Switch the conversation to how bad it was with a little conversational jujitsu.
More is Less
You’d think that the more people that you have to invite the more trouble you are going to encounter. This is true to a point. Once you reach 8~9 people an interesting phenomena occurs: the group gets broken into smaller units. Now, all you need to do is negotiate with the units rather than the individuals.
Couples, for example, suddenly will vote as a single entity, free will be damned. Game theorists and political scientists even have a term for this — Pooling Strategies. This can work, albeit less so, with siblings and even, on occasion, with people travelling from the same geographical location.
Speaking of geographical locations, you can use the knowledge that A is driving from Powai to convince B that they will get picked up on route and thus get a free/reduced-fare trip.
Larger groups also ramp up FOMO and people are also less likely to bail.
Finally, don’t make the mistake I made and share this list with them. It doesn’t work as well once they are on to you. Hopefully, the Forgetting Curve works to my favour. And, I can get to planning Star Wars XI without much ado.