In many ways, game shows are just like psychological experiments. Scientists love to exploit our logical blind spots to show just how irrational human beings will act in the right circumstances. Of course the scientists can sleep well at night knowing that they're only making anonymous subjects look stupid in the name of progress, while game shows make people look stupid on national TV so we can laugh at them while they lose money. But it all balances out in the end, since the game show people can use all that money to buy medication to help them sleep at night.
The first three rounds of Wheel of Fortune are a glorified hangman game in which turns follow one-on-one basketball rules: You get a letter right, you get to go again. The final round of group play, however, is the speed-up round, where Mr. Sajak gives the wheel a final spin and then the contestants take turns guessing a letter at a time and trying to solve the puzzle until someone gets the right answer.
Let's say you find yourself going first in the speed round. If you've watched Wheel of Fortune, you'll probably guess "E." Vowels don't cost anything in this round, and every Wheel watcher knows that "E" is the most common letter in the English language. As you hear the pleasing ding and watch Vanna walk up to the glowing puzzle pieces and flip them around, you'll probably feel pretty good about your guess.
"What is 'Chalupa Night'?"
Congratulations, you've just done the stupidest thing you could have done with your turn. What you should have done is ask for something you're fairly certain won't be up on the board, like a "Z," or an "X," or an ampersand. This is because, despite what your impatient monkey brain tells you, going first is almost always a huge disadvantage.
How Does That Work?
Remember in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the Nazis are trying to pass a series of trials to get to the Holy Grail, but all they're really doing is racing against each other to see who can die more horribly? Indy goes last and beats the game! Sure, Indy's smarter than Nazis, but how far do you think he would have gotten if he hadn't watched a bunch of them get decapitated and make poor cup choices?
"Note to self: Wait this one out."
It's called the "first mover disadvantage," and it says that in most turn-based contests, the first person to move has the worst chance of success because he or she is going in completely blind. As a result, the person going second gets the benefits from the information gained by the first mover without any of the costs.
This applies to any real world situation where people are competing to come up with the best answer to the same question. Steve Jobs knew this better than anybody. Despite his reputation as a great modern-day inventor, Jobs never really invented anything. Not the windows-based operating system, not the MP3 player, not the tablet and certainly not the cellphone. Jobs' business strategy was to sit back and wait for other companies to invent new products, then figure out what the coolest version of that product would look like.
Returning to the hypothetical Wheel of Fortune scenario, now that you've "taken advantage" of having the first turn, you have to pick a famous quotation solely by the position of its "E"s. If you guess "X," you pass your first mover disadvantage on to the second contestant and wait for the board to come back to you.
"I'm sorry, there is no pi."
Of course, there's nothing stopping all three contestants from adopting this strategy, turning the speed-up round into the Mexican standoff round as they scrape their way through the bottom half of the alphabet. That's where the pleasant ding and the sight of Vanna White come in. A good sign that a show is screwing with one of your logical blind spots is if they surround the illogical option with good-looking women. For instance ...
In Deal or No Deal, 26 briefcases worth anywhere from a penny to a million dollars are held by attractive women who fall on the "No Deal" side of the spectrum of acting careers. You pick one that stays closed for the entirety of the game, and an anonymous banker starts making offers to buy the briefcase off of you, even though neither of you know what it's actually worth. The object of the game is to decide whether or not to accept the banker's offer without verbally acknowledging how similar this is to the subprime mortgage market that collapsed the global economy in 2008.
Despite its simplicity, economists love the game, and have described it as a nationally televised psychology experiment. In reality, every single offer the "banker" makes is determined by the average value of all the briefcases that haven't been opened yet. If you were to ask the world's foremost economist to put a valuation on your briefcase, he would come up with an almost identical figure.
"I have considered your generous offer, and would like to present my naked junk as a counteroffer."
The show goes to great lengths to hide the fact that there's a simple equation behind each offer. The American version even gives the banker a shadowy silhouette that you can practically feel sexually harassing his secretary through the frosted glass. This is presumably why even risk-averse contestants usually react to the first offer as though the banker just told them they could wash his balls for $20.
But as the game wears on, the contestants become far more likely to get into a downward spiral based on the "sunk cost fallacy," the illusion that the money you have lost is somehow recoverable. But when the banker's offer keeps going down, we will go down with it to the bitter end, comparing it to the offer we had five minutes before (Deal or No Deal helpfully leaves past offers up on the screen to make this extra easy). This means that the longer you play, the more likely you are to receive a lower offer, and the more likely you are to continue rejecting perfectly reasonable offers even if it requires you to act like an idiot.
"Lick my asshole, dickhead! I'm goin' for it!"
How Does That Work?
Let's take the downward spiral of a contestant who we'll call Mary, because that's her name.
"No, you're doing great, honey! Is there a way you could make us owe them money?"
As the above screencap shows, each of her offers was equal to or less than the one that had come before. When the banker made the second $31,000 offer, her husband reminded her that they'd both agreed that "$25,000 would mean a lot" before the show started. But she rejected it, and kept rejecting his offers, taking on more and more risk because she was trying to get back to that first offer of $51,000 she'd turned down.
It's not just Mary. If you've ever sunk money into car repairs because you've already spent too much money on a piece of crap car, you were using the exact same brain muscle that robbed Mary up there of $50,000 (she ended up walking away with an offer of $10).
"It would have been nice to clear our crippling debts, but at least you had fun, honey!"
Because of the way our brains process the past and the future, we're more likely to compare our current situation to what things were like before. Logic and economists would advise you to immediately forget every offer that's been made to you the second you turn it down because, and this is important, that money no longer exists. It is imaginary money. And pretending otherwise is going to make you poorer.
Turning off the "What happened last time?" part of our brain is easier said than done. And any offer that's lower than past offers will make us feel we've "lost" however much the difference was. And so, like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music, this heady mixture of attractive women, easy money and fleeting fame can result in a rapid downward spiral caused by living in the past and fixating on the way things used to be.
Most contestants and viewers think that the main purpose of Jeopardy! is to determine the world's greatest trivia expert. Up until last year, everyone who went on the show had prepared by trying to learn all sorts of information that no one else knows, like the capital cities of obscure countries and the plot synopsis of every episode of The Brady Bunch.
But that's just buying into the fictional premise of the show. The true key to winning Jeopardy! is not to know more than most people know about everything, but instead, to know as much as anyone knows about most things. In other words, don't become a trivia expert, just become a really good trivia amateur.
And take a few liberal arts electives in community college.
How Does That Work?
Computer scientist Roger Craig decided to figure out if there was a mathematical strategy to beating Jeopardy! because that is what nerds think about for idle entertainment. To do this, he downloaded thousands of Jeopardy! questions and answers into his computer, which went "Beep beep boop" and spat out some statistics on the average thing they're likely to ask.
What he found was that it's an illusion that you can be "asked anything" on Jeopardy! because most of it comes back to the kind of trivia you learned in high school and then quickly unlearned -- state capitals, the table of elements, the works of Shakespeare and stuff like that. When Jeopardy! does ask a more obscure question, the answer is usually the only answer you do know -- if you're put off by a question about early 20th century architects, for example, the answer is probably going to be Frank Lloyd Wright.
Via Wikimedia Commons
He's also the answer to any question involving "sweet-ass hair."
That's because Jeopardy! isn't really trying to find the world's biggest know-it-all. Like any television show, it's all about the viewers, who are going to be put off if every question goes way over their head. So the contestants aren't so much competing against the experts as they are competing against the plumbers and middle managers playing at home, who won't watch if they can't feel smug about knowing a bunch of the answers.
To test his theory, Craig mapped all the questions that have ever been asked on Jeopardy! and quizzed himself on how he did in each different category, then studied the biggest dots that he could answer the lowest percentage of questions in. The big green and red dot, for instance, is a section he calls "diffuse wordplay" -- the categories where all of the answers start or end with a certain letter or letter combination.
The blue dot at the bottom is presumably "social lives, and the people who have them." By visualizing what his biggest problem areas were, he was able to make himself a better Jeopardy! player without having to master any particular area of knowledge. When Craig finally went on the show to put his theory to the test, he set the all-time one-day record for the game ($77,000) and then won $250,000 in the Tournament of Champions. In short, he became the Neo of Jeopardy!
His work was just another example of data mining -- using computer programs to organize huge masses of information in an efficient and meaningful way. By visualizing the entire history of questions, he was able to discover unexpected things about how to win at Jeopardy! just like Bill James used stats to learn unexpected things about winning baseball teams. Craig's method actually helps us better analyze terrorist threats and even track your periods, if you're into that sort of thing.
"My next one is Wednesday!"