Underpants games

One of our Liberia studies is tracking 1,500 ex-combatants over two years. In the beginning, these particular ex-coms were illicitly mining diamonds or gold, occupying a rubber plantation, or making other mischief. Half are now in an agricultural training program that will also set them up with land and tools.

We are surveying both groups, and we have two staff doing qualitative interviews full time. That seems like enough data for one project. But when behavioral economist Julian Jamison came to town to work on a street youth project with me, I persuaded him to design some behavioral games to measure risk and time preferences.

The problem: the agricultural school didn’t want us giving out any cash (or quickly cashed-in rewards, like phone credit). They tried sweets and toiletries, but nothing seemed to elicit widespread excitement or desire.

Then star research assistants Rebecca Littman and Camelia Dureng stumbled upon the miracle good that everyone wants: underwear.

Turns out, everyone in the world wants more than one or two pair of underwear. It’s not as universal as cash, but it seemed to do the trick.

Here’s one of the ensuing risk games. (“Lucky ticket” is Liberian for lottery.)

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“Make your decision: Briefs/panties OR lucky ticket.” Sounds like a paper title to me.