The Audience Member’s Dilemma

Last September, I had the chance to see a show by the Cambridge Footlights, one of the world’s best college sketch groups. The comedy was fresh, fast-paced, and full of surprising postmodern twists, one of which I found particularly affecting.

First, the Footlights took a volunteer from the audience and gave her a pad with a button to push.

“Every second you wait to push that button,” they announced, “you’ll earn a dime.”

One opened a briefcase, then showed us that it was full of money. At least a few hours’ worth. Another held up a large digital timer and turned it on.

00:01… 00:02… 00:03…

Finally, as we waited for the punchline, they held up a sign with the name of the sketch: “The Audience Member’s Dilemma”.

The volunteer looked down as the audience burst into laughter. She seemed to want to push the button immediately, then hesitated, then sat there on the edge of resolving her dilemma. The laughter died down, then resurfaced, a bit quieter each time.

After fifty-one seconds, she gave in. Too soon, I think—people were still laughing—but a reasonably risk-averse move. The actor with the briefcase gave her a $5 bill and a dime, and the Footlights began the next sketch.


For less than a minute, the volunteer was earning 360 dollars an hour. That’s a higher base salary than that of the CEO of American Airlines. And all for sitting in a chair.

Well, sitting in a chair, and leaving the rest of us sitting in chairs. There were 90 people in the audience. In the real world, most of us would have left within the first hour, but let’s pretend the doors were locked, regardless of the fire hazard.

Were that the case, the value of time spent in the theater would quickly reach zero for those of us not holding the pad. (We keep our cell phones off, of course—that’s common courtesy.) We’d get hungry after a while, but this is a thought experiment, and hunger doesn’t exist.

Boredom does, however. And anger (though not violence). Even if the volunteer divided the spoils equally, we’d all be earning four dollars an hour, less than half of Connecticut’s minimum wage. And we doubt she’ll divide the spoils equally, because then she’d only be getting four dollars an hour, and she’s already chosen to sit in her chair without pushing the button.

In short, we’re in for a long night.


Is it wrong of the audience member, blessed with the chance to earn thousands of dollars in the course of a single evening, to sit there without pushing her button?

What if I told you she’d taken out thousands of dollars in student loans, and that she needed the money more than you needed your time? What if I told you she’d signed a contract to donate her windfall to an overseas charity, thereby using the money to save a life?

Very well, you might grumble, but it’s still my time, and she ought to have asked before using it on my behalf.

I think you’d be right. For the hours we spent locked inside the theater, we’d have been something between hostages and slaves—our evenings taken from us, to be used for purposes highly tangential to our own needs. Had a vote been taken, we might well have decided on self-sacrifice; still, it seems somehow remiss to use someone’s time without their permission, especially when they value it so much more highly than you do yourself.

But if we call the volunteer a villain, and claim that the only winning move in the Audience Member’s Dilemma is not to play, then how ought we to think about:

  • A professor who asks his 50 students to turn in homework on the far end of campus (a 15-minute walk for each) rather than asking a single teaching assistant to collect the assignment from a centralized location?
  • A college that decides to spend 1600 hours of students’ time on a mandatory theatrical production?
  • A government that asks each citizen to spend an extra hour every time they fly, for the sake of a security measure that seems not to be very effective?


This post will be the first in an occasional series about the value of time—be it an hour spent in traffic or thirty seconds spent walking the sides of a right triangle.

Each passing second is a fraction of our lives. We take life seriously, but I don’t think we give time the same respect. And that’s a problem.

Not every instance of control over the time of others has to be a net negative. I have nothing against Kaleidoscope. Still, whether you’re a college administrator, a programmer debugging a site used by millions, or a government official overseeing a public transportation project, it helps to remember that tens of thousands of hours could hang on your decisions.

…and the same is true for bloggers. At least I’m not a popular blogger. Still, I hope this post was worth your time.

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