By RICHARD H. THALER, The New York Times
IF a business school professor is running short on cash, there is a sure-fire solution: run a dollar auction game in class.
To start, the professor offers to sell the class a $20 bill. Bidding starts at $1 and goes up in $1 increments. The winner pays the professor whatever the high bid was, and gets the $20. Here’s the catch: the second-highest bidder also has to pay, but gets nothing in return.
Typically, a few brave or stupid students — nearly always male — open the bidding but fairly quickly only two bidders remain and they discover they are in a war of attrition. The bidding slows when someone bids $20, but then resumes with neither wanting to “lose.” If the two students are particularly stubborn, prices can go over $50. (The professor typically gives the money to charity, or claims to.)
The dollar auction game was invented by a pioneer of game theory, Martin Shubik of Yale, and it illustrates the concept of “escalation of commitment.” Once people are trapped into playing, they have a hard time stopping. (Consider Vietnam.) The higher the bidding goes, and the more each bidder has invested, the harder it is to say “uncle.” The best advice you can give anyone invited to play this particular game is to decline.
[Swoopo.com] sells new merchandise using unusual auction formats. Let’s concentrate on one of them, the so-called penny auction.
Typically an item — say, a laptop that retails for $1,500, is offered for sale. The bidding starts at a penny, and goes up in one-cent increments, but it costs bidders 60 cents to make a bid. Each auction has a scheduled closing time, but as the deadline nears, that time is extended by 20 seconds whenever someone bids.
The site’s home page displays several attractive objects for sale with closing times fast approaching. It is mesmerizing.
What makes this procedure so devilish is that while bidders are looking at what seem to be amazing bargains, the Web site is raking in the money. Because Swoopo collects 60 cents for each penny bid, its revenue is the selling price multiplied by 60. This means that if a computer you covet sells for $100, seemingly a bargain, Swoopo collects $6,000 in revenue, a very juicy profit.