The Law and Economics of Survivor

40 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2000

See all articles by Maxwell L. Stearns

Maxwell L. Stearns

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Kimberly A. Moore

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: October 2000


In recent years, the ubiquitous body of literature falling under the general header of "rational choice" has come under fire. Drawing upon economics and experimental psychology, a body of literature has emerged in which legal scholars and economists operationalize formal games under laboratory conditions, and then compare the resulting play against rational choice predictions. Because the experiments often fail to unfold in the manner predicted by formal theory, scholars have relied upon these studies to challenge both the underlying assumptions of rational choice and rational choice prescriptions for law and public policy. Rational choice scholars have responded by arguing that rationality is necessarily bounded, that the empirical studies must account for the costs of acquiring information, and that rationality is not inconsistent with attaching a consumption value to certain forms of cooperative behavior. Most importantly, theorists have argued that low stakes games are of limited value in assessing rational play in high stakes legal and policy settings. This past summer, CBS ventured into the world of real life voyeuristic programming. In Survivor, CBS effectively structured a true high-stakes game. The ultimate cash payoff of $1 million was of sufficient magnitude that for those players who best positioned themselves to win, the apparent benefits of playing strategically outweighed the potential costs of appearing uncooperative or even unpleasant. To the extent that Survivor offers a glimpse into how stakes affect interactive human behavior under carefully defined conditions, and into how success might well result from careful strategy rather than inherent merit, Survivor offers an important antidote to the emerging literature critical of rational choice. When we compare Survivor with three fairly simple rational choice games, the theory comes out a winner.

Suggested Citation

Stearns, Maxwell L. and Moore, Kimberly A., The Law and Economics of Survivor (October 2000). George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 00-37, Available at SSRN: or

Maxwell L. Stearns

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

Kimberly A. Moore (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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