Here’s where the game gets devious. Sometimes, while the player is happily clicking away inside the room with the best return, gathering cash, the two unused doors start to shrink. Eventually each door disappears—unless the player clicks on it in time to bring it back to full size. People get twitchy as those doors shrink; they do whatever it takes to keep them from disappearing. They’d rather rescue the door—which they have no real desire to go through, since the room it leads to doesn’t pay out as much—than keep getting rewarded for staying where they are.
In an MIT lab, undergraduates are getting paid money to open and close doors: real money, virtual doors. The students are navigating between rooms on a computer screen, part of a game devised by psychologists Jiwoong Shin and Dan Ariely. Players get a limited number of clicks, which they can use either to click on a door or to click inside a room. Clicking a door costs nothing but also pays nothing—all it gets you is the chance to enter a new room. Clicking inside a room pays out at a variable rate depending on which room you’re in—anywhere from three to fourteen cents for every click. After a few minutes roaming the three rooms, the players figure out which one has the highest payout ratio. If they want to keep accumulating money, they’ll stay in that room and keep clicking.