A financially struggling middle-class family receives a briefcase with $100K and must make a decision: keep the money; share the money with another struggling family; or give all the money away to that other struggling family. Before making this decision, they have an opportunity to learn more about the other struggling family. They have 72 hours to make the decision. Website here.

The twist is that the other struggling family has also received a briefcase with $100K and has also been presented with this keep/share/give away decision. Neither family knows that the other has a briefcase.

Within the 72 hours, the producers of the show set up different negotiation dynamics inside and between the families, while parceling out more and more information about each family to the other. After each family makes its decision, they are introduced to each other, informed of the twist, and then asked to divulge how much they decided to give the other and why.

As a matter of negotiation, the interesting takeaways so far (the show has only aired a few times) are:

  • People are not motivated solely by financial self interest. Even before either family knows any details about the other, they think seriously about sharing the money or just giving it away outright.* Perhaps the cameras make a difference in how these folks work through their decisions; that said, both families are in financial straits and each could make a defensible argument for keeping all the money.
  • Co-negotiators are not always in agreement, and more information/time does not necessarily improve things. Our students figure this out as soon as they have to negotiate with a partner. On the show I just watched, the spouses were not in agreement about what to do with the money and these disagreements actually became more pronounced as they got more information.
  • Even though this is not a true ultimatum game setup (since no one can veto the decision of the other), it is useful to see how increased contact/information affects the fairness determinations of the participants. It will be interesting to see what happens when the families come from different ideological/political backgrounds; the previews indicate that those matchups (e.g., lesbian couple v. good-ol’ Texas family) are coming.

Critics have complained that the show sets up a “hunger games” scenario in which needy people are pitted against each other. I agree that the big reveal at the end (“you both had a briefcase!”) is potentially quite humiliating and confusing for those involved. I also don’t like some of the broader social messages around curing structural poverty through the private actions of individuals. But as a show about intra-team decision-making, it provides some useful conversation points.

* SPOILER ALERT! For example, in the first episode, both families gave the entire $100K away.

Jennifer Reynolds is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon Law and the Faculty Director of the ADR Center. Teaching civil procedure, conflicts of law, negotiation, and mediation, her research interests include dispute systems design, problem-solving in multiparty scenarios, judicial attitudes toward ADR, and cultural influences and implications of alternative processes. She is also a contributor to ADR Prof Blog.