Testing times

Splitting the pot

Our understanding of the brain was advanced for many years by unfortunate people who had impaled themselves with a javelin or an axe.  Provided they survived, but only just, they could donate their brains to medical science while still using them.  After a fashion.

Frontal lobe shot to pieces?  OK, do you think that your best mate has been replaced by a facsimile?  Thought so.  That’s what your frontal lobe stops you doing.

Two brain halves severed in a catastrophic knife-throwing incident.  Please feel this object (a banana, say) under a cloth and tell us what it is.  You can’t!

Anyway, curse you MRI and CT scans for robbing these unlucky people of a profitable post-trauma sideline.

TV quiz programmes have provided a similar experiment for behavioural economists to test their hypotheses.  Behavioural theories challenge many assumptions of traditional economics and marketing, by showing how contextually malleable our decision-making and opinions are.

One or two also provide a demonstration of game theory in action.

Game theories have been in the news recently: the death of ‘A Beautiful mind subject John Nash, creator of the Nash Equilibrium. And the Greece-Eurozone crisis allowed my FT colleague Giles Wilkes to position the standoff as a variant on the ‘prisoners dilemma’.


From the Financial Times/ Giles Wilkes: How Eurozone hardliners see the benefits – Grexit is better than mutual concession

Why is this a variant?  Because in a normal prisoners dilemma, the prisoners benefit from cooperating whereas, the opposing camps in Greece vs Creditors see the advantages from cooperation only accruing to the other side.

What can quiz shows tell us?  They allow researchers to examine behaviour with real financial stakes – with budgets most academic institutions would be unable to risk.

In his recent book ‘Misbehaving’, Richard Thaler looks in detail at Deal or No Deal, and a particular episode of the ITV quiz GoldenballsDeal or No Deal shows how our attitudes to risk shift according to circumstance – prospect theory in action.   But Goldenballs is more interesting because it involves competitive decision-making.

It involves two competitors accumulating a pot of money. Each player, in secret, then chooses whether to split the money with the other player, or to attempt to steal all of it.

If they both choose to split then that’s what happens: the money is shared.  If they both try to steal, then neither wins anything (equivalent to the two prisoners shopping their accomplice and being sent down for a long stretch).  But if one agrees to steal, and the other offers to split, then all the money goes to the one stealing.

I only watched a couple of episodes because I found the whole thing deeply unpleasant.  For the viewer there are two happy endings – when the players both split (shared joy), or both players steal (schadenfreude all round..).  But on what possible basis can one take pleasure in watching a selfish ‘stealer’ benefiting from the more generous nature of the ‘sharer’?

I have many character flaws, but if I were on Goldenballs I would never opt to steal. I couldn’t live with myself, and to be exposed on TV as a selfish shitford?  More than that, I’d dump any friend who stole all the money – even from a stranger – under such circumstances.

Take a look at the finale of the episode of Goldenballs that Thaler examines.  It’s a thing of beauty:

And there’s an interesting post-script which I won’t tell you in case it spoils the clip, but you can hear a terrific radio programme about it here.

What’s all this to do with TV audiences?

Well, very little in fact.  But how do householders negotiate choices around programme that are on at the same time?  Doesn’t one have to win, and the other lose?

Viewers calibrate their viewing choices according to the perceived behaviour of others, and choose to watch programmes that their network of friends will also watch.  They see what others are planning to do, and go the same route.  It’s win-win.  The network provides some reassurance about the quality of the programme, and, at the very worst, a chance to talk about how crap it was.  We all enjoy that.

But sometimes there are schedule clashes.  How do they choose? Well by watching on catch-up, or using a PVR to record the programme of course.  Or watching in separate rooms.  Happens all the time.  But that’s cheating, and in any case it doesn’t describe what normally happens – we prefer to watch with someone else.  But a lot of the time, choices are made purely from the spirit of co-operation – people like to watch programmes together.  Co-operation is built in.

And the biggest demonstration of behavioural economics that TV viewing provides is the yawning gap between how we think we watch TV and how we actually watch, and the primacy of contextual factors, of heuristics, of, you name it, over a content-driven individualistic choice.

And it’s a mystery why TV marketers don’t deploy behavioural techniques to encourage co-operation.  The schedule is a major element, but they could go further – communicate the crowd, illustrate co-operation as a principle underpinning the experience.

Television isn’t about stealing. It’s either about doing your own thing. Or doing it with others. And even when it is about doing your own thing, then buried deep within your subconscious, like an iron bar embedded in the head, lies the sense of splitting the experience with other people.

And that’s why I like it.



If you liked the above clip – then take a look at this one from The Bank Job on Channel 4, with far bigger stakes.