Split or Steal

There are 2 TV shows on British TV which share a “Split or Steal” feature. The shows are Goldenballs 1) and Shafted 2). In Shafted the Split or Steal feature is rather more bluntly described as “Share or Shaft”. Split or Steal is the final part of the show, at which point two remaining contestants will have “won” a certain amount of cash – in the case of Goldenballs this can be quite a significant sum. This size of the pot depends on what has happened earlier in the show but can easily be into 5 figures and the most I have seen is a £100,000 prize.

I put the word “won” in inverted commas to emphasise that the players have not in fact won anything until they negotiate the Split or Steal part of the show. The idea is simple enough. Each player has to choose individually (and in secret) whether to Steal the whole prize, or to Split the prize with the other contestant. They are allowed – in fact they are encouraged - to talk to each other about what they intend to do (and they can lie about it of course).

If both contestants choose to Split, then that is exactly what happens, and both go away with half the total pot. If one contestant chooses to Split and the other to Steal, then the contestant that has chosen to Steal gets the whole pot, and the other contestant gets nothing. But if both contestants select Steal then neither contestant wins anything at all.

Logical choice

The following table shows the possible outcomes for a £50000 pot.


The logical choice for each contestant is clear. They will not win anything unless the other contestant selects Split. If this does happen then the contestant’s personal win will be the whole pot if they have select Steal or half the pot if they selected Split.

So looking at it from purely a financial reward perspective, the logical choice is to select Steal. But there is far more to it than that as I shall discuss in the following sections.


The psychology of this game is absolutely fascinating. The TV show has been designed such that the level of potential winnings is significant. If you stood to win £100 or £200 say, it would be easy enough to agree to Split the prize with a fellow contestant. But a £50000 prize is really significant, and there is an obvious incentive to try and win the full amount.

But to do so, you have to do something that would amount to theft in any other situation. It is not really theft because the money belongs to the TV station, but the format of the show makes it seem like it is. Throughout the earlier parts of the show, the contestants have been working together to try and build up the size of the pot. It is all designed to instil a feeling of community between the contestants. So to Steal the money at the end of the show goes against the social values that most respectable members of society hold dear.

Furthermore, you are having to perform this act of social anarchy very publically on national television. It is true that you are never again likely to meet the contestant you stole from. It is also true that however much the viewing public may disapprove of what you have done, they are unlikely to remember you for more than about 5 minutes. But that does not make it any easier to go against your social conditioning even though you know that the next day you can stroll down to the bank along the high street with your £50000 cheque and you are unlikely to be recognised by any anyone.

Except your friends and family of course…. Who may, or may not approve of what you have done.

Persuasion Techniques

As a contestant, irrespective of whether you plan to Steal or Split, your number 1 priority has to be to persuade your fellow contestant that they should Split. If they do not, you will not win anything. And of course, at the same time, whatever your real intentions, you need to persuade them that you also will Split. This leads to some astonishingly ingratiating behaviour between people who prior to the show had never met.

You see these total strangers doing such things as holding hands across the table between them. They will say things like “I would never Steal from you” or “I could not live with myself if I decided to Steal”. But I think it is the body language that is the biggest indicator. If one contestant cannot look into the eyes of the other, but instead looks to the side or down at the floor, it is a probable sign they might be about to Steal.

Sometimes the contestants use tricks. Each player has 2 balls placed before them (1 Split ball and 1 Steal ball), and they are instructed to check the contents of each (secretly) so they know which is which. This all happens before the Split or Steal conversation takes. On one occasion that I saw, after both players had professed that they were going to Split, one of the contestants asked the other to indicate which was their Split ball. The moments hesitation as this player (who was intending to Steal) worked out that he had to indicate the Steal ball was the Split ball was enough to give the game away.

Here is a clip from one of the shows. There was £100000 at stake in this episode. You see the 2 contestants holding hands and promising each other that they will Split. When the presenter is talking about the Split ball you see them nodding in affirmation that this is what they are going to do. I think the eventual outcome might surprise you (it certainly surprised me). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0

An Alternative Strategy

In the course of watching the show, I often wondered what would happen if one of the contestants said “I am going to Steal, so if you want any money then Split and we might be able to come to a deal after the show”. I had in fact assumed that programme makers would have briefed the contestants that this kind of argument was not allowable.

But in the course of researching this article I discovered that this very thing did indeed once happen. The eventual outcome was very interesting and is well worth watching.


Television | United Kingdom

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