The Red Paper Clip — A Social Experiment and Game Examined

Kyle MacDonald’s “One Red Paperclip” project inspired me to try playing this trading game for myself. Here are the lessons I learned.
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The Red Paper Clip — A Social Experiment and Game Examined

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Some of you might already be familiar with Kyle MacDonald’s “One Red Paperclip” project. If not, be sure to see his blog: One Red Paper Clip, and watch his TEDx Talk video.

Having fun with this Red Paperclip Game

Some folks explore this red paperclip game concept as an economic experiment, where your goal is to trade up. Others, like myself, just play the “game” with daring friends to just enjoy the experience. While we do split up in the beginning, we’re not there to compete. We gather at the end of the day and recollect our experiences interacting with strangers.

I personally love this game, because 1) it provides entertainment for you and all those involved at little to no monetary cost, 2) it pushes you to talk to strangers and improves your social skills, and 3) it give you appreciation for people’s generosity and creativity. We jokingly state that this is middle ground between pick-up artistry and salesmanship.

Having played this game on several free Saturdays, I’ve come up with some observations.

If you ask with a smile, you’re more likely to get what you want.

It’s no joke when they say positivity goes a long way. People seemed more open to interact with us when we expressed more enthusiasm and positive emotions. after a few cold call approaches, we could better read people’s faces to know if they would respond well to our requests. If we smiled, and they delivered a genuine smile back, it was pretty much a guarantee that they would accommodate our request.

People are less generous and less likely to trade after they have spent money.

We’ve played in Downtown San Jose, San Jose State University, UCLA’s main campus, Eastridge mall in San Jose and a shopping mall in Pasadena to list a few places, so I’ve noticed differences on people’s level of receptiveness based on setting.

One of the most remarkable thing is that some people at the mall shut us down by stating they have spent too much money. According to the scarcity mentality, when people fear that they don’t have enough to provide for themselves, they are less generous.

On the opposite end, the university setting removed that financial stress. At this liberal setting, most college students seemed very receptive. They readily handed us their pens, pencils and small doohickies right out of their backpacks. I should note though, things might have been different had I been interrupting a class or scouting for students near the Financial Aid office in Murphy Hall.

Two hands holding a small paperclip
It’s not a red paper clip, but it’ll have to do. We started our trading game with a simple paperclip.
Young people are more open to playing, even though they have “less” money.

Older people often professed that they had nothing to give us. They were looking for items with equivalent monetary value to match our item. They tried to avoid engagement. However, young people were inventive about how they approached the situation. We got stickers, candies and erasers as they eagerly entertained our requests to trade. In fact, our youngest trader at 7 years old got so excited to give us her chocolates.

People want to help others who they feel are more relatable. One could argue as we age, we become more conservative while youth are more open-minded. This might echo the scarcity mentality, mentioned earlier. However, we should also note that the young people felt more connected to us due the small age difference, therefore seemed more willing to help us out.

If you can’t speak their language, people are more reserved about trading.

Feel free to refute this, because I’m making a huge generalization. However, my friends and I noticed that first generation Asian students and immigrants were very skeptical about playing this game with us. They wanted explanations, but still shied away from trading. At first, I thought it was a cultural thing for immigrants to be risk adverse. However, that doesn’t make sense! They literally made the biggest gamble of all by leaving their lives at home behind.

Instead, I believe it’s more of a trust issue when there’s a language barrier. Since my friend spoke Spanish, she was in a better position to encourage folks to trade. However, since our Mandarin, Vietnamese and Cantonese skills were quite limited, we couldn’t effectively convince first-generation folks to participate. This severely limited the quality of our communication with them.

Fun does not need to be attached to a dollar sign.

Entertainment can come cheap if you are creative. Often times, you can just enjoy the free company of new friends and learn quite a bit from listening to stranger’s stories. It’s really nice that each time this game ends, we’re left with a physical souvenir to remind us of all the wonderful people we have come across.

If you enjoyed reading this article, check out the rest at at On The Brain.

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