Proving the Mysterious Vickrey Auction

Vickrey auction is known for its “too good to be true” property. This type of auctions is designed in such a way that bidders will bid at their true valuations. In other words, they will not lie! How does that even work? Without further a do, let us use a simple game theory to prove that.

The simple game theoretic proof¹

Consider the a hypothetical bidder that we call Albert. Albert has a valuation of v and a bid b. Remember that in Vickrey auction, each bidder will have to submit a sealed bid of their valuations in a closed envelope (or anything that is sealed). Let the highest bid among other bidders be B. In this situation, Albert will win the item if his bid of b is higher than B and he will pay a value of B for the item.

One technique in mathematics that we use to prove let say x = y value is by checking the boundary conditions. As such, to prove that Albert will bid at b = v, we need to check the boundary conditions. There are two boundary conditions here. One where c = b > v and the other where c = b < v.

c = b > v

In this simple set up, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. B > c > v
  2. c > B > v
  3. c > v > B

In scenario number 1, Albert will not win the bid. Since his bid of cis lower than the highest bid among other people, another person will win the bid. Changing c to v does not help either. He will always lose. As such, he might as well bid v from the very start. In scenario number 2, his bid of cis higher than B. As such, he will win the item and pays a total amount of money that is equal to B. However, B is higher than his true valuation of v. Therefore even though he wins the item, he will incur a loss of B - v! In this scenario, it is better to bid at v and lose on purpose! In scenario number 3, the same thing happens. Albert will win the item and pays B. His gain will be v - B because he only values the item as much as v. But in this case, he might as well bid v instead of c in the first place because the end gain is the same! Therefore when c = b > v, he has the incentive to bid v.

c = b < v

In this simple set up, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. v > c > B
  2. v > B > c
  3. B > v > c

In scenario number 1, Albert will win the item and pays B for it. In this case, his surplus or gain will be v - B. As such, he might as well bid v instead of c in the first place because it will yield the same gain anyway. In scenario number 2, Albert will lose the item. However if he bids v instead of c, he will turn from a loser to a winner! He could have gotten the item. So, he should have bid with v in the first place. In scenario number 3, Albert will lose the item regardless. As such, he might as well go with v. Therefore when c = b < v, under all possible scenarios Albert has the incentive to bid v instead of some other value.

Q.E.D

[1] The proof can be found on wikipedia page. I also used my university notes to simply it.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store