Have Button, Will Push

Scott Gardner

When I first came to Japan I didn’t imagine being capable of doing anything to earn money apart from teaching English. I was slow to notice all the side-job opportunities for foreigners that were out there: wedding priest, videogame voice, Santa Claus, political campaign white-glove waver, walking dictionary, the list goes on. These exotic “gaijin gigs” weren’t always easy to get, but all my expat friends seemed to be working weekends while I was home making lesson plans. To try and catch up I approached a few coworkers about forming a manzai duo called “Ben P. and Gary”, but no one took me up on it. To be honest, I had no material to work with beyond the crass bilingual potty joke moldering in our would-be stage names.

I managed to get a two-day stint as a movie extra, and for a while after that I had the proverbial stars in my eyes, but nothing else came along for me except a random street invitation by a local TV crew to try some 地ビール (microbrew beer) on camera. I heaved an affected “Aaah!” and let the suds dribble down onto my shirt. My scene didn’t make the cut.

Probably my best chance as an actor would be to play the shill in psychological experiments. Studies often require someone to work in collaboration with the researchers and act like a participant, while the researchers secretly study the real subjects’ responses to the fake one. The best example of this is the guy who screams in the other room while subjects think they are administering electric shocks to him. I think I could do that.

Ethics rules in most countries no longer allow traumatizing research subjects with simulated pain-inflicting devices, but psychologists are still keen to try any way they can to measure how crappily humans will treat each other. And I think there’s still a need for undercover confederates to get in there and mess up some heads.

Take the Ultimatum Game for example. You put two subjects in a room and give the first one a stack of money. That player must share some of the cash with the second player, but she gets to decide how much to offer. If the second player accepts the offer, both of them keep their share of the money. If the second player refuses the offer (probably because it’s not “fair”) then neither player gets any money at all. Player One has to find the sweet spot that keeps Player Two happy while capitalizing on her control of the cash.

In real life we test each other’s tolerances like this all the time, and not just with money. How far forward can I take my car toward that “Lane Closed” sign and still expect someone to let me merge over? How many times can I use the call button on a flight before the attendants start squirting wasabi into my bloody marys?

The Ultimatum Game is usually for two bona fide research subjects. The acting bit comes in when you play the iterated version. This means the subjects play the game again and again, alternating who decides the payout. Logic says that after two or three times the players would figure out that splitting 50/50 each time will maximize both their profits. Boring! That’s why you have to send in the shill. Put me in there as an agitated, clueless subject, and you’d really learn something about other people’s behavior. 

I’d start by offering Player Two a reasonable 48%, and maybe collect 52% myself. In the next game I’d reject the offer no matter how large it was. Then somewhere down the line I’d offer the whole wad to my partner and laugh mischievously when he takes it. These seemingly absurd maneuvers would make him think there’s more to the experiment than everyone’s letting on, and as the game wore on he’d go crazy trying to figure out what it is. 

As for me, at the end of the day I’d be supplementing my lowly teacher’s income with a stipend check, essentially getting paid to perfect my skills at aggravating people with flighty decisions and irrational demands. Watch out, students!