Late last week many of the usual talking heads and comics were still discussing the United Airlines passenger who was physically dragged from an overbooked flight, simply because he refused to give up his seat voluntarily. What should the passenger have done differently? What should the company have done or said differently? Did the other passengers do enough? Will there be a lawsuit? Is social media ever gonna let it rest?

I heard a story on NPR about “game theory” and how it should inform the airline’s future client service and image management. I think you should allow it to inform yours, too.

For those who don’t know: “Game theory” is the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. It asserts that your “game” is only as good as how you deal with your opponent’s “game.” Alternate explanation for sports enthusiasts: The best offense is a good defense.

The NPR panel offered that using this theory to better serve the public by recognizing some truths about human nature and our desire to “win” is of critical importance. How could United Airlines have handled this better in the moment before it escalated to a YouTube feeding frenzy?

I know the airline didn’t ask for my opinion, but here are a couple of recommendations based on this theory:

  1. But it’s MY seat! Don’t allow travelers to board a flight that is overbooked. Listen to the NPR story (linked below) when the expert talks about the perceived value of a coffee mug.
  2. Win the game now … waiting is for losers. Offer the biggest incentive first (e.g. largest amount of money) and then lessen it as people don’t take advantage. Frame it as an “opportunity that is slipping away.”
  3. Nobody wants to be a sucker. Don’t make announcements requesting volunteers. Talk to passengers individually about giving up their seats for compensation. We are influenced by our neighbors. We think, “If they aren’t volunteering, why should I?”

Read the full story here.

Game theory may be based in statistical analysis, but I think it is more than just the math. It is a study in human nature that service providers – and communicators — should not ignore. How do you actively engage the players early on? How do you make the situation one in which they want to play and win? By making the experience a game.

And to quote Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You FIND the fun and <snap>, the job’s a game…”