The key element of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is the constant drama provided by the lack of a game clock. This element allows contestants to mull over their eventual choice before diving all-in with their "final answer." During this period, the contestant talks out his thought process with the host and attempts to reason his way to the right answer. Even if that means spending more time trapped with Regis.
In reality, every word you say in this section of the game makes you more and more likely to do something extremely stupid.
"And thus, my final answer is MUST STAB FACE!"
How Does That Work?
While you're sitting and thinking about a question you're frankly clueless about, you become subject to what's known as "escalating commitment" -- you start talking yourself into an answer. This doesn't necessarily mean it's the correct answer, just that, for one reason or another, you have a vague preference toward it. Maybe just because you like the shape of the word, or the option is "bacon" and you really like bacon.
Of course, you're not going to actually admit that you're choosing an answer because it has that correct shape to it. So instead, your brain will start coming up with rational-sounding reasons why it might be true. In the end, you can make yourself almost sure of an answer you realized you didn't know only five minutes ago.
"I'm not current on molecular biologists, but I'm pretty sure 'The Situation' is one ..."
And then there's what all your "thinking out loud" does if you ultimately decide to use the audience lifeline.
In a study into how good crowds are at coming up with the right answer, James Surowiecki observed that over an extended stretch, the "Ask the Audience" lifeline produced the correct result 91 percent of the time, as opposed to 65 percent for "Phone a Friend." This is counterintuitive, since the audience is just a big group of dumbasses they pulled off the street. But when you think about it, the dumbasses who don't know the answer will just spread out randomly so that no wrong answer can dominate, while those who do all choose the right answer will bump that one to the top.
Seventeen percent. Remember that, because this is the world.
That's an amazing weapon to have at your disposal, and the only way to ruin it is by thinking out loud. If you say, "Well, I know it's not 'D,' because 'D' is a stupid letter," you've totally tainted the audience's magical truth-divining properties, even if "D" is the correct answer. If you poll the audience after a lengthy brainstorm session with Regis, the audience members who don't actually know the answer are going to agree with whatever the answer you clearly want to choose is because, hey, you're the smart guy talking to Regis. Basically by announcing any answer, even if it's wrong, a contestant herds the audience toward his "safe" option, completely destroying the power of the group.
The lesson is that a group as a whole tends to be smarter than the smartest person in that group until one jackass convinces everyone otherwise.
Translation: Fifty-six percent of the audience believes the sun orbits the Earth.
In The Weakest Link, contestants are faced with a risk-reward system along with their trivia. For each question a player answers correctly, the reward for the next question is for even more money. This money is only safe, however, once it has been "banked" by a contestant who fears the show might actually be getting interesting.
In this case, that's relative.
The cash reward rises exponentially for every successive right answer -- $1,000 for the first, $2,500 for the second and $5,000 for the third, right up to $125,000 if you get eight in a row right. Of course, the second you get one wrong, you lose all the money that you'd built up with the previous five questions.
People who play the game often bank the money after three or four questions to be safe. That big dollar figure is just there to trick you. Right?
Actually, hard math says the "Now sounds about right" banking strategy is about the stupidest thing you could do. Due to the lopsided pay scale in which the game operates, it is actually most advantageous for teams to never bank, instead opting to attempt a full eight-combo chain each round, earning themselves $125,000 every time they make it.
On the other hand, if teams simply can't agree to collectively grow a pair, the second best option involves banking after every question, thus effectively providing the best ever example of go big or don't go at all.
Of course, sometimes the best strategy is to just not play.
How Does That Work?
It's all about maximizing your potential earnings, and no other possibility in the game can compete with the potential for winning $125,000. The only thing that's close is if you bank after every question, because every right answer earns you money. If you don't, you risk wasting whole strings of right answers on your group's one dipshit. On the other hand, if you don't bank at all, the chance of six right answers in a row can earn you more than you might otherwise have over the entire game. Either strategy will earn you more money than banking every three or four answers, which is what everyone does.
Usually it's the person who is promptly voted out for being unforgivably stupid.
The reluctance for players to go all-or-nothing despite mathematical assurance is an example of loss aversion on a massive scale. The prospect of potentially leaving with no prize money terrifies contestants into accepting smaller, less fulfilling bank amounts that guarantee at least some reward. Basically, contestants are being offered an 80 percent chance of big money or a 100 percent chance of medium money, and even though cold math says to go big, fear overtakes logic within the mind and they wind up with just enough for the bus fare home.
Wipeout is the Funniest Home Videos version of the game show, in which contestants padded up like football players race each other across an obstacle course made of slippery cushions, bouncy things and giant mechanical swinging shit that breaks every health and safety law it's possible to violate. If they fall off at any point, they are humiliatingly dunked into the water below and made to swim to the next portion of the course, but not before 16 or 17 multiple-angle replays of the exact moment of their crushing failure.
Short of months of intensive training flailing like an idiot in a makeshift version of the game made of lawn furniture and a garden hose, what can you do to get the upper hand at Wipeout? The answer is simply fall down as quickly and as often as possible.
Just do it in a way that allows them to add in the "boing" sound effect. They love that.
How Does That Work?
If the courses on Wipeout look practically impossible by the outer limits of human ability, then you're absolutely correct. They're designed that way. Unlike most game shows, in which the thrill comes from watching a contestant win, people watch Wipeout purely to see people's flailing rag doll bodies fall on their faces. By the creator's own admission, only 10 percent of Wipeout contestants succeed in each challenge, and that's just the way they want it.
So in the first round of the show, contestants are faced with an obstacle course which, again, is designed for failure. When a contestant does fail, he must instead swim alongside the course to the finish line. But most of the slowest contestants are those who spend too much time attempting to navigate difficult portions of the course before inevitably falling into the water anyway. In lieu of all that, it's a much smarter option for a player to just jump right into the water immediately and swim for his life.
In business literature, this is known as "failing efficiently," which means that if failure is already presumed, then the most logical use of resources is in failing the best way possible. In the case of Wipeout, you give yourself a 100 percent chance of getting past the first round if you just accept the fact that you're going to fail. Don't worry if this makes you feel like a quitter. There will be plenty of opportunities to make a hilarious spectacle of your spinal column in the later rounds.
If your head doesn't touch your tailbone, you're not doing it right.
Michael Voll is an independent writer living in Maryland. Contact him about pretty much anything at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matthew Culkin is a junior English major at Tulane University. He wants anyone offering a summer internship in the Bay Area to let him know. Reach him for comment at MRCulkin@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter.
For more ways to beat the system, check out 5 Ways To Hack Your Brain Into Awesomeness and 5 Bizarre Brain Hacks That Make You Better at Sports.
And stop by LinkSTORM to read our Pat Sajak/Alex Trebek fanfic.
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