The story of a psychological study conducted amongst a group of graduate students
In seven short hours, they'd been conditioned to think of the chips as ATMs that spat out twenties, and even though their rational minds knew better, their hearts were all telling them to corner the chip.
My hope is that this gem of a story will be both enjoyable and relevant when considering the intrinsic value (or lack thereof) of cryptocurrencies. Perhaps it is madness. But in a world where you can speculate on things like futures for volatility one ought to remember that value doesn't always make an asset but rather the demand of the mobs does.
Once, when he'd been working on his Masters, he'd participated in a study for a pal in the economics department. They'd locked twenty five grad students into a room and given each of them a poker chip. "You can do whatever you want with those chips," the experimenter had said. "But you might want to hang onto them. Every hour, on the hour, I'm going to unlock this door and give you twenty dollars for each poker chip you're holding. I'll do this eight times, for the next eight hours. Then I'll unlock the door for a final time and you can go home and your poker chips will be worthless -- though you'll be able to keep all the money you've acquired over the course of the experiment."
He'd snorted and rolled his eyes at the other grad students, who were mostly doing the same. It was going to be a loooong eight hours. After all, everyone knew what the value of the poker chips were: $160 in the first hour, $140 in the next, $120 in the next and so on. What would be the point of trading a poker chip to anyone else for anything less than it was worth?
For the first hour, they all sat around and griped about how boring it all was. Then, the experimenter walked back into the room with a tray of sandwiches and 25 $20 bills. "Poker chips, please," he said, and they dutifully held out their chips, and one by one, each received a crisp new $20 bill.
"One down, seven to go," someone said, once the experimenter had left. The sandwiches were largely untouched. They waited. They flirted in a bored way, or made small talk. The hour ticked past.
Then, at 55 minutes past the hour, one guy, a real joker with red hair and mischievous freckles, got out of the beat-up old orange sofa turned to the prettiest girl in the room, a lovely Chinese girl with short hair and homemade clothes that reminded Connor of Jenny's fashion, and said, "Rent me your poker chip for five minutes? I'll pay you $20."
That cracked the entire room up. It was the perfect demonstration of the absurdity of sitting around, waiting for the $20 hour. The Chinese girl laughed, too, and they solemnly traded. In came the grad student, five minutes later, with another wad of twenties and a cooler filled with smoothies in tetrapaks. "Poker chips, please," he said, and the joker held up his two chips. They all grinned at one another, like they'd gotten one over on the student, and he grinned a little too and handed two twenties to the redhead. The Chinese girl held up her extra twenty, showing that she had the same as everyone else. Once he'd gone, Red gave her back her chip. She pocketed it and went back to sitting in one of the dusty old armchairs.
They drank their smoothies. There were murmured conversations, and it seemed like a lot of people were trading their chips back and forth. Connor laughed to see this, and he wasn't the only one, but it was all in fun. Twenty dollars was the going rate for an hour's rental, after all -- the exactly and perfectly rational sum.
"Give me your poker-chip for 20 minutes for $5?" The asker was at the young end of the room, about 22, with a soft, cultured southern accent. She was also very pretty. He checked the clock on the wall: "It's only half past," he said. "What's the point?"
She grinned at him. "You'll see."
A five dollar bill was produced and the poker-chip left his custody. The pretty southern girl talked with another girl, and after a moment, $10 traded hands, rather conspicuously. "Hey," he began, but the southern girl tipped him a wink, and he fell silent.
Anxiously, he watched the clock, waiting for the 20 minutes to tick past. "I need the chip back," he said, to the southern girl.
She shrugged. "You need to talk to her," she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, then she ostentatiously pulled a paperback novel -- The Fountainhead -- out of her backpack and buried her nose in it. He felt a complicated emotion: he wanted to laugh, and he wanted to shout at the girl. He chose laughter, conscious of all the people watching him, and approached the other girl, who was tall and solidly built, with a no-nonsense look that went perfectly with her no-nonsense clothes and haircut.
"Yes?" she said, when he approached her.
"You've got my chip," he said.
"No," she said. "I do not."
"But the chip she sold you, I'd only rented it to her."
"You need to take it up with her," the girl who had his chip said.
"But it's my chip," he said. "It wasn't hers to sell to you." He didn't want to say, I'm also pretty intimidated by anyone who has the gall to pull a stunt like that. Was it his imagination, or was the southern girl smiling to herself, a smug little smile?
"Not my problem, I'm afraid," she said. "Too bad."
Now everyone was watching very closely and he felt himself blushing, losing his cool. He swallowed and tried to put on a convincing smile. "Yeah, I guess I really should be more careful who I trust. Will you sell me my chip?"
"My chip," she said, flipping it in the air. He was tempted to try and grab it out of the air, but that might have led to a wrestling match right here, in front of everyone. How embarrassing!
"Yeah," he said. "Your chip."
"OK," she said. "$15."
"Deal," he said, thinking, I've already earned $45 here, I can afford to let go of $15.
"In seven minutes," she said. He looked at the clock: it was 11:54. In seven minutes, she'd have gotten his $20. Correction: her $20.
"That's not fair," he said.
She raised one eyebrow at him, hoisting it so high it seemed like it'd touch her hairline. "Oh really? I think that this chip is worth $120. $15 seems like a bargain to you."
"I'll give you $20," the redhead said.
"$25," said someone else, laughing.
"Fine, fine," Connor said, hastily, now blushing so hard he actually felt light-headed. "$15."
"Too late," she said. "The price is now $25."
He heard the room chuckle, felt it preparing to holler out a new price -- $40? $60? -- and he quickly snapped, "$25" and dug out his wallet.
The girl took his money -- how did he know she would give him the chip? He felt like an idiot as soon as it had left his hand -- and then the experimenter came in. "Lunch!" he called out, wheeling in a cart laden with boxed salads, vegetarian sushi, and a couple buckets of fried chicken. "Poker chips!" The twenties were handed around.
The girl with his money spent an inordinate amount of time picking out her lunch, then, finally, turned to him with a look of fakey surprise, and said, "Oh right, here," and handed him his chip. The guy with the red hair snickered.
Well, that was the beginning of the game, the thing that turned the next five hours into one of the most intense, emotional experiences he'd ever taken part in. Players formed buying factions, bought out other players, pooled their wealth. Someone changed the wall clock, sneakily, and then they all spent 30 minutes arguing about who's watch or phone was more accurate, until the researcher came back in with a handful of twenties.
In the sixth hour of the experiment, Connor suddenly realized that he was in the minority, an outlier among two great factions: one of which controlled nearly all the poker chips, the other of which controlled nearly all the cash. And there was only two hours left, which meant that his single chip was worth $40.
And something began to gnaw at his belly. Fear. Envy. Panic. The certainty that, when the experiment ended, he'd be the only poor one, the only one without a huge wad of cash. The savvy traders around them had somehow worked themselves into positions of power and wealth, while he'd been made tentative by his bad early experience and had stood pat while everyone else created the market.
So he set out to buy more chips. Or to sell his chip. He didn't care which -- he just wanted to be rich.
He wasn't the only one: after the seventh hour, the entire marketplace erupted in a fury of buying and selling, which made no damned sense because now, now the chips were all worth exactly $20 each, and in just a few minutes, they'd be absolutely worthless. He kept telling himself this, but he also found himself bidding, harder and harder, for chips. Luckily, he wasn't the most frightened person in the room. That turned out to be the redhead, who went after chips like a crackhead chasing a rock, losing all the casual cool he'd started with and chasing chips with money, IOUs.
Here's the thing, cash should have been king. The cash would still be worth something in an hour. The poker chips were like soap bubbles, about to pop. But those holding the chips were the kings and queens of the game, of the market. In seven short hours, they'd been conditioned to think of the chips as ATMs that spat out twenties, and even though their rational minds knew better, their hearts were all telling them to corner the chip.
At 4:53, seven minutes before his chip would have its final payout, he sold it to the Fountainhead lady for $35, smirking at her until she turned around and sold it to the redhead for $50. The researcher came into the room, handed out his twenties, thanked them for their time, and sent them on their way.
No one met anyone else's eye as they departed. No one offered anyone else a phone number or email address or IM. It was as if they'd all just done something they were ashamed of, like they'd all taken part in a mob beating or a witch-burning, and now they just wanted to get away. Far away.
For years, Connor had puzzled over the mania that had seized that room full of otherwise sane people, that had found a home in his own heart, had driven him like an addiction. What had brought him to that shameful place?