Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who Wants to be Vice President?

I am currently reading a fascinating book about the systematic ways in which human beings behave irrationally. Entitled "Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior," authors Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman convey a series of anecdotes and social psychology experiments that demonstrate the biases that drive people regularly to make decisions that are comically foolish, at best, and tragically misguided, at worst. In one portion of the book, the authors discuss the game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" On the assumption that readers are familiar with this game, I will give only a brief description here: The contestant is asked a series of multiple-choice questions, and if he answers the requisite number correctly, he wins a million of whatever the local currency is (dollars, pounds, etc.). When he feels stumped, he can ask for a lifeline. A lifeline takes a number of forms (from which the contestant may choose), but the relevant option for our purposes is the one in which the contestant asks for a polling of the game show audience.

The game show has been extremely popular around the world, though it originated in the U.K. In a French episode, which the authors of Sway describe, one of the earlier questions posed is this: Which of the following revolves around the earth? Is it (a) Mars, (b) the moon, (c) the sun, or (d) Venus? The contestant was stumped (perhaps because he skipped out on that day in elementary school, perhaps because he was too nervous to be on a TV game show) and asked for a lifeline. He chose to poll the audience. The French audience was "split" on the question. Many of them chose Mars, but a larger number chose the sun. Taking the audience's cue (relying on the wisdom of crowds -- a phenomenon explained well in a different book by James Surowiecky bearing the unsurprising name "The Wisdom of Crowds"), the contestant chose "(c) the sun." The authors ask their readers rhetorically whether perhaps there is something deeply wrong with the French educational system but conclude that, no, a different dynamic is afoot.

The French audience bursts out in laughter when the contestant (following the audience's advice) answers the question incorrectly, exposing the fact that people actually knew the correct answer but were deliberately deceiving the contestant? Why would they do that? Before answering, consider what happens when the game is played in the U.S. The polled audience in the U.S. is said to be correct 90% of the time, and the people in the audience appear earnestly to pass along their perceptions of the correct answers with the contestant.

Finally, consider what happens in Russia. It turns out, say the authors, that in Russia, the audience tends to give the wrong answers to the questions, regardless of the ease or difficulty of those questions, and regardless of how much the audience actually knows.

What accounts for this behavior? Is not the entire point of being part of the audience to help the contestant on stage? Aren't the Americans the only ones who are playing the game correctly? The answer is yes, if one is obeying the rules of the game. Audiences are specifically instructed to answer the questions to the best of their knowledge. They violate the rules if they do otherwise (much like a jury that nullifies). The authors hypothesize, however, that different cultures have different visceral reactions to what is taking place in the game and therefore respond in ways that might violate the game's rules but conform to their own respective sense of fairness.

In France, on this theory, the audience believes that a person who is going to become a millionaire must merit that victory. If a question is very difficult, and the wisdom of crowds is properly sought, the audience will help. But if the question is easy and the contestant is still unable to answer it, then the audience concludes that he does not deserve to become a millionaire. They therefore, independently of one another, deliberately manipulate him into answering the question in a manner consistent with his revealed abilities. In Russia, the authors go on, people tend to believe that everyone should have more or less the same amount of earthly riches. Wealthy people (and poor people as well) are viewed with suspicion. For a single individual to become a millionaire by exploiting the wisdom of the group thus signifies an oligarch attaining wealth on the backs of the people. Finding this prospect unappealing, the audience deliberately misleads the contestant.

In the U.S., finally, people are completely comfortable with disparities of wealth and believe, moreover, that if someone becomes wealthy, then he generally deserves to be wealthy. Americans, in other words, are -- as a general matter -- neither suspicious nor resentful of wealthy people in their midst. The audience is therefore free to identify with the contestant and to do whatever it can to help him become a millionaire. After all, if he wins, the audience loses nothing, and it can take altruistic pride in having assisted in the victory.

All of these are, at best, oversimplifications of the various cultures that have hosted the program "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Nonetheless, they may help explain the "Sarah Palin" phenomenon -- not the pseudo-feminist aspect of it (on which I have posted here) but the resistance of many viewers to the likelihood that she is truly not up to the job, as evidenced, for example, by her performance during her interview with Charlie Gibson. People may choose to assume that if someone is running for president (or vice president with an actuarially heightened chance of becoming president), that person must be qualified for the job. Accordingly, voters can afford the luxury of focusing on the more "fun" aspects of the contest -- personality, style, and presentation. When the candidate is unable to answer basic questions about foreign policy, for example, the audience is prepared to help out the "contestant" (either by saying what she "must have" meant -- "the Bush doctrine could refer to spreading democracy, not just to preemptive self-defense, so she was just trying to get Gibson to narrow his question rather than exposing her utter cluelessness" -- or by focusing on how nasty and mean the interviewer was and how impressively "confident" the contestant was). Americans may be identifying with Sarah Palin and thus wanting her to succeed, living vicariously through her just as they might through a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

It's probably fair to say that when we are discussing a game show, the Americans' approach is the most generous and appropriate. If one believes that the entire game is an unjust usurpation of the means of production, then one should probably not be part of the studio audience for such a game. If one looks down at very uninformed contestants, then perhaps a more fully merit-based game like Jeopardy would be a better choice. But when the victorious contestant will become Vice President and perhaps President if she wins, it might behoove us to emulate countries in which the populace is less generous and far more probing in the face of legitimate efforts to dethrone an impostor.

By Sherry F. Colb