The dollar auction is a non-zero sum sequential game designed by economist Martin Shubik to illustrate a paradox brought about by traditional rational choice theory in which players with perfect information in the game are compelled to make an ultimately irrational decision based completely on a sequence of rational choices made throughout the game.
The setup involves an auctioneer who volunteers to auction-off a dollar bill with the following rule: the bill goes to the winner; however, all bidders must pay the highest amount they bid. The winner can get a dollar for mere five cents, but only if no-one else enters into the bidding war. The second-highest bidder is the biggest loser by paying the top amount he/she bid without getting anything back. The game begins with one of the players bidding 5 cents (the minimum), hoping to make a 95 cent profit. He can be outbid by another player bidding 10 cents, as a 90 cent profit is still desirable. Similarly, another bidder may bid 15 cents, making an 85 cent profit. Meanwhile, the first bidder may attempt to convert his loss of 5 cents into a gain of 80 cents by bidding 20 cents, and so on. Every player has a choice of either paying for nothing or bidding five cents more on the dollar. Any bid beyond the value of a dollar, is a loss for all bidders alike. Only the auctioneer gets to profit in the end.
See also 
- Shubik: 1971. Page 109
- Shubik, Martin (1971). "The Dollar Auction Game: A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior and Escalation" (PDF file, direct download 274 KB). Journal of Conflict Resolution 15 (1): 109–111. doi:10.1177/002200277101500111.
- Poundstone, William (1993). "The Dollar Auction". Prisoner's Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286162-X.