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Using Simple Game Theory, You’ll Be The ‘Winner’ Of Your White Elephant Gift Exchange

You don't get the talking wall-mounted fish without making a few enemies.

Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean we completely lose our sense of competition altogether. So whether there’s a certain gift you’re just dying to have or if you don’t care, but just want to make sure that yours is better than everyone else’s, you can own the “competition” at your white elephant gift exchange by leveraging some simple game theory principles.

Here are the steps as laid out by Ben Casselman at the statistics-focused site FiveThirtyEight:


As each gift is opened, mentally assign it a value (perhaps a dollar value or a 1-to-5 ranking);

When it’s your turn, average the value of all the opened gifts (whether or not they’re available for stealing);

If there is a stealable gift “worth” at least as much as the average, steal it! Otherwise, open a gift. (Depending on the rules you’re playing by, not every gift might be available for stealing.)

This might seem like pretty basic stuff, but what it does is force you to treat each transaction individually and incrementally. You don’t need to trade for the gift you want. You just need to work your way towards that gift by continuously trading up. By “trading up,” we mean getting a gift that’s more desirable to the group at large, not just to you. So if you’ve already got a FitBit, that shouldn’t dissuade you from trading your Desperate Housewives tell-all book for the FitBit.

If it helps, you can actually assign arbitrary cash values to the gifts as well, though if you bust out a notepad and calculator, you might get some funky looks from the office party-planning comittee.

Oh, and if all the gifts are terrible (which they will be) you can always just relax, make fun of all the gifts being swapped, and let your competitive juices simmer down because, hey...holidays.

But we all know that won’t happen, so learn your game theory.

Just remember that no matter how clever you think you are, there’s always someone trying to be quicker (or at least way more macabre):

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