The M&M Trick

A while back I read a book called Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. It’s a great book that feels like light reading but you’re actually learning a lot about economics and sociology and human psychology.

Part of the reason why it feels like light reading is because Levitt and Dubner do a fantastic job of incorporating examples as they’re teaching various concepts so it feels as if you’re just reading a whole bunch of fun short stories, when really you’re learning about things that would traditionally be taught in a classroom.

One of my favorite things they teach in the book is a principle in game theory. Its formal term is separating equilibrium but Levitt and Dubner calls it “teaching your garden to weed itself”.

Here’s how it works (and here’s the great story that Levitt and Dubner use to teach it).

Van Halen is a hard rock band from the 1970’s. Being a hard rock band they are not shy in having extravagant performances. That entails ginormous speakers, colossal lighting, a whopping stage, and everything that could make a concert as hardcore as possible.

The extent of all this setup requires tedious details to be sorted out to ensure even the sheer safety of the concert setting itself. All the wiring has to be correct, support pillars have to be put perfectly in place so nothing collapses – there just has to be absolute diligence when preparing for a concert.

And all of those minute details can be found in the band’s contract rider.

Minute details that also include the band’s food demands for backstage.

For those of you who don’t know what a contract rider is, because I admittedly didn’t know what it was at first either, a contract rider is basically a book that lays out all the technical details for a band’s setup. The venue at which the band will perform at receives the contract rider ahead of time so that way when the band arrives at the location everything is mostly ready to go.

Patrick Whitley was Van Halen’s production manager from 1978 – 1984 and cleverly hid a separating equilibrium inside the band’s contract rider in order to ensure that the venue was following all directions to a T.

In the contract rider he put a whole bunch of demands such as a dozen hard-boiled eggs, Fruit Loops, real silverware (no plastic), 12 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, etc.

And in the middle of all that was the request for M&M’s but, as written in the contract rider,


Many thought this was the band’s way of flaunting their position but this was actually the test to see if the venue would follow all the directions in the contract rider, no matter how tedious.

When the band arrived at a location, the first thing Whitley would do is head backstage to check for brown M&M’s. If there weren’t any he could generally assume that the venue followed all directions properly. But if there were brown M&M’s Whitley would know he would have to do a go around of the entire venue.

“Teaching your garden to weed itself” is basically a way of forcing various parties into a situation and the strategy each party approaches the situation with, tells you something about them. In most cases it indicates which are the “guilty” parties and which are the “innocent” parties.

In this case, the guilty parties were the venues who had brown M&M’s and the innocent parties were the venues who had no brown M&M’s.

Takeaway Lesson (besides the game theory part):  just because you don’t understand why somebody is doing something (or just because you think it’s outright stupid), doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

Another example of this which is discussed in the book is the famous story of King Solomon and cutting the baby in half. Now that you know how Whitley did it, see if you can figure out how King Solomon used game strategy in his ruling concerning the baby.


Housekeeping Note: If you enjoyed this short lesson about game strategy I highly recommend you read Levitt and Dubner’s book – it’s filled from page one to the end with clever stories such as the Van Halen band.

Also, Levitt and Dubner have another book called Freakonomics that is very similar to Think Like a Freak.

Lastly, the answer to the riddle from last week’s post (Mail Time) is: A Mailbox

(If you remove a letter from a mailbox, as in a letter you send through the postal service, it’s still a mailbox. Same thing goes if you were to add a postal letter. I like the riddle because it refers to something that sadly is going out of style more and more with the growth of social media, which is what makes the riddle challenging.)

4 thoughts on “The M&M Trick

  1. Pingback: Mail Time

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