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What in the world is “Traponomics?”

It is the ability to use game theory and incentives to trick guilty people into confessing.

I ran across an article in the Wall Street Journal on 9 May 2014 entitled, “How to Trick the Guilty and Gullible into Revealing Themselves”. Written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the article talks about real life situations where the truth is reached through Machiavellian thinking. However, the authors postulate that it is actually done through game theory—the art of beating your opponent by anticipating their next move.

Machiavellian thinking in action

King Solomon identified the real mother of the baby by threatening to cut the child in half and giving each woman one half. One woman kept silent while the rightful mother told the king to give the child to the other woman. He knew the real mother would prefer to lose the baby rather than see it killed.

David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen, wrote into their concert contracts that a bowl of M&M’s were to be provided but under no circumstance were there to be any brown M&M’s in the bowl. Was he a prima donna? At first you’d think so. But he wanted to make sure that the promoter read the entire contract (there were many safety issues included in the contract that needed the promoter’s attention). If Roth saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he knew the promoter didn’t read it carefully enough. It was a way of identifying the guilty.

King Charles VI of France ruled for a long time. The problem was he was incapacitated by madness. During his periods of madness, his younger brother, Louis I (of Orléans) assumed command of the country. Louis was not well liked by the Parisians and others for many reasons. On the evening of 23 November 1407, Louis was viciously murdered by a mob of men. The murder of a royal family member, let alone the brother of the king, was an act that had far reaching implications.

A gamble

Portrait of Jean II, Duke of Burgundy
Portrait of Jean II, Duke of Burgundy

The royal council ordered Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris (chief of police), to find out who murdered Louis. Through methods that seem to be taken out of modern day police procedure, Guillaume came to the conclusion that the murder was a conspiracy. He concluded that the assassination was ordered by Jean II, Duke of Burgundy (also known as John the Fearless). He was the first cousin to the king and one of the most powerful lords in France. Burgundy was part of the royal council and considered a Prince of the Blood. How could Guillaume accuse a man of such power? He was in a no-win position.

He decided to gamble. Here’s where game theory comes into this story. Guillaume decided to go before the royal council and ask each lord for permission to search his residence. He knew that if Burgundy were guilty, he would not allow the search (turns out Burgandy was hiding the assassins in his home—the tower is still in existence and can be seen today in the center of Paris). All the lords said yes except Burgundy. Instead of replying to Guillaume, Burgundy took several of the lords (his uncles) into a separate room where he confessed to being behind the conspiracy. Guillaume’s strategy worked. Unfortunately it set off a series of events that would engulf France in a civil war—bad timing considering France was already at war with England (known as the Hundred Years’ War).

It also didn’t end well for Guillaume as he did end up losing his job after a series of brilliant game theory moves by Jean–sans–Peur (John the Fearless).

Do we have a lot of stories? Of course we do. I’m looking forward to sharing these with you. Please continue to visit our blog and perhaps subscribe so that you don’t miss out on the most recent blog posts.

Thanks so much for following my blog and my little journey through this incredibly interesting process of writing a series of niche historical travel books and then getting the bloody things published.


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Copyright © 2014 Stew Ross



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