M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper Series No. 2022-01

Playing Divide-and-Choose Given Uncertain Preferences

Jamie Tucker-Foltz

Richard Zeckhauser

July 2022


We study the classic divide-and-choose method for equitably allocating divisible goods between two players who are rational, self-interested Bayesian agents. The players have additive private values for the goods. The prior distributions on those values are independent and common knowledge.

We characterize the structure of optimal divisions in the divide-and-choose game and show how to efficiently compute equilibria. We identify several striking differences between optimal strategies in the cases of known versus unknown preferences. Most notably, the divider has a compelling “diversification” incentive in creating the chooser’s two options. This incentive, hereto unnoticed, leads to multiple goods being divided at equilibrium, quite contrary to the divider’s optimal strategy when preferences are known.

In many contexts, such as buy-and-sell provisions between partners, or in judging fairness, it is important to assess the relative expected utilities of the divider and chooser. Those utilities, we show, depend on the players’ uncertainties about each other’s values, the number of goods being divided, and whether the divider can offer multiple alternative divisions. We prove that, when values are independently and identically distributed across players and goods, the chooser is strictly better off for a small number of goods, while the divider is strictly better off for a large number of goods.

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