Dr. Steve Mason
“We make some of our greatest gains when we see old things in new ways.”

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There’s an old saying: Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Of course, you can always add Nuclear Tipped Missiles. When the Cold War started and we weren’t accustomed to having rockets aimed at us, people worried about the possibility of World War III. Were humans foolish enough to exchange weapons that might wipe out life on Earth? Psychologists decided to test the limits to which we might go with the Ace Trucking experiment.

Two subjects were isolated in separate rooms. Each of the rooms contained a toy, remote controlled truck affixed to a map. The goal was for each subject to move their truck along a road going from A to B in the shortest time. Since time was money, the subjects were paid in real money to make the exercise more realistic.

At the beginning, the subjects quickly realized that there was a speedy direct route which, when taken, would result in a profit every time. There was also a detour with twists and turns that would, if taken, lose money every time. The problem was that the direct route was narrow and could only accommodate one truck at a time. The one that arrived first made more while the one that got there second made less but both still made a profit. After several experiences with both trucks jockeying back and forth to go first, a silent agreement was made and the trucks alternated.

It was at that point that the psychologists gave one subject a gate. If put up, it would force the other subject to lose money taking the detour. The only rational decision was for the subject without a gate to allow the competition to go first every time. This was the state of the world until the 50’s. The USA had the bomb and the USSR didn’t so we enjoyed an advantage. But then the experimenters provided a second gate which mirrored the world scene. Both the Americans and the Soviets had the bomb.

This was the scary part. Both sides had the power to defeat the other so they both threw up their gates. There was no compromise. They each took the detour and lost money on every run. Providing phones so the two sides could communicate – the equivalent of a hot line between nations – only made things worse as heated arguments broke out. It was just like the Cuban Missile Crises. Both sides continued to bluster and threaten as the situation deteriorated. It was startling how the two individuals with toy trucks behaved just like two nations with thermonuclear missiles. As the two trucking companies moved toward bankruptcy, the two countries were getting ever closer to Armageddon.

Look At It This Way

How would you have handled these situations?  Eventually the two truckers went broke with their gates left firmly in place.  One trucker used his phone to say: “I’ll lose less than you.”  The Missile Crises had a happier ending but just barely.  At the time, Dean Rusk was reported to have said: We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked. That was 1962. What has changed since then to make a similar crisis less threatening today?  Anything?  Think about it.

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