Deborah Friedell hits the jackpot
Auctions are often plagued by something called the winner’s curse. The person who ‘wins’ the painting or Floridian land parcel usually pays too much for it. Unless the winner knows something that the other bidders don’t, he's probably overvalued the object: otherwise, why wouldn’t someone else in the room be willing to pay as much?
But the online charity auctions run by raffle.it are in a format I hadn't encountered before – they seemed, possibly, curse free. Each of their auctions is like a regular raffle, except you get to choose your own number (only positive integers are allowed). The winner is whoever has the lowest unique number: if Anne has 2, Betty has 3, Cindy has 2 and Diana has 7, then Betty wins. Once you've chosen your number, you're told whether or not someone else has already gone for it. If someone else picks your number before the raffle ends, you're alerted by email. Either way, you have the chance to bid again.
The raffle that I played was in aid of a charity called Mothers4Children, run by the supermodels Lisa B. and Yasmin Le Bon, and most of the prizes were things like cashmere sweater sets for infants, spa days, pushchairs more complicated than cars. For most of the raffles, tickets cost £1 each.
For a substantial Selfridges gift certificate, I later found out, bids had been all over the place: fifteen people went for 1, nine said 2, ten plumped for 3; the most popular number was 7, with sixteen people convinced it was lucky; there were a few high numbers, like 399 or 432. Several people bought multiple tickets, but no one else went at it systematically. I started at 1 (not unique), then 2 (not unique), all the way up to 53, which was unique, and there I stopped. Several of my guesses were defensive: only one other person had picked 38, for example, and if I hadn’t also bid that number, she’d have won. For the Montblanc pen, bidders guessed as high as 57: I won it at 8. A spa day at Harvey Nichols: 14. The cashmere sweaters (I thought of someone who wouldn't mind the dry-cleaning bills): 2.
What might have constituted a winner's curse? If there had been someone else as convinced as I was that she knew the secret. For the Selfridges prize, if someone else had guessed 53, I would have kept going – where would I have stopped? What if there were more than two of us – ten of us, a hundred of us – playing the same raffle? For a £2000 gift certificate, would I have stopped at 2000 numbers? Or would I have kept playing, trying to minimise my losses, telling myself that at least the money was going to something that might pass for a good cause?