Monday, February 11, 2008

Game Show Lifelines

I love card games: they're fun to play and test many different skills. One of the most important facets of winning card play is to have a plan. Whether it's poker or bridge, good players will usually think about a strategy before implementing it, while bad players are content to simply wing it, always unsure of what to do next and often making the wrong play as a result.

Game show contestants often exhibit the same tendencies when presented with "lifelines". Most players don't plan their lifeline usage in advance, and as a result they often get little or no utility out of them.

For example, on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", often a contestant will encounter a question where she has absolutely no clue what the correct answer is. Typically, she will ask the audience, but if that option has already been exhausted, she will often take a 50/50, then re-evaluate the question. Still having no clue, she then phones a friend for help.

This is abysmal usage of the lifelines. Taking the 50/50 in this spot can only be justified if the contestant intends to guess between the remaining two answers. (Even then, it's probably not the best move.) Generally, the phone-a-friend either knows the answer or doesn't. (She might have to Google/Wikipedia the answer, but that's irrelevant.) Clearly, the superior strategy is to phone a friend right away, then use the 50/50 only if the friend doesn't know the correct response. This will usually save a valuable lifeline; the 50/50 by itself is worth tens of thousands of dollars if you still have it after ten questions.

Another Millionaire quirk deals with asking the audience. This is best illustrated by a (real) example. The question asked what Elmo was searching for in a recent Sesame Street movie.

The choices included three physical objects--regrettably, I don't remember which ones--as well as Big Bird. Naturally, the contestant chose to ask the audience. Naturally, most of them voted for Big Bird, as they had not seen the film but were all familiar with the giant yellow symbol of Sesame Street.

However, the voting breakdown looked like this:

A: 30%
B: 2%
C: 3%
Big Bird: 65%

The contestant then went with a "final answer" of Big Bird. This was not her best play. The audience could be broken down into two groups: those who knew the answer and those who were just taking a guess. Naturally, those who knew would all answer the same way. The others would guess in a predictable way: they'd most likely choose Big Bird because it was a familiar answer, but they would be about evenly divided between the physical objects. What would possess them to choose one over another?

If Big Bird is the correct answer, what explanation is there for the popularity of answer A? Certainly the explanation isn't good enough to justify 30% of the vote compared to 5% for B and C combined. It's much more likely that only a small portion of the audience has seen the film, all of whom voted for A. Sure enough, A was the correct answer, and the contestant went home with only $1,000.

The relatively new show "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" may feature easy questions, but the lifelines present some interesting strategies, which the contestants almost always get wrong.

For those not familiar with the show, the contestant and an actual Fifth Grade student answer the questions together--with the student writing his answer down rather than speaking it--and the contestant has three single-use lifelines:

Peek: The contestant may look at the student's answer, but does not have to use it.
Copy: The contestant locks in the student's answer as her own.
Save: If the contestant answers incorrectly but the student answers correctly, the contestant is credited with a correct answer.

It should be clear to readers of this blog, if not the general public, that the Peek is a dominant strategy to the Copy, since it gives the player the added option of rejecting the student's answer. Additionally, many questions in the show have only two or three answer choices, so the Peek and Save lifelines can often be combined to virtually assure a correct response.

Say you approach a question and have no clue what the answer is. Assuming you have all your lifelines intact and don't intend to quit, what strategy should you use?

There are only two reasonable lines of play:

- If it's a true/false or multiple-choice question, use your Peek, then answer the opposite way of the student, OR
- Copy the student's answer.

However, this is not what the typical contestant does. She Peeks at the student's answer, rationalizes the answer (whether or not she actually agrees with the student) in her own mind, then uses the student's answer as her response. By doing this, she has turned the Peek into a Copy, and the only benefit is that she gets to see the student's answer 30 seconds earlier.

I understand the psychological motivations for wanting to see one's answer before committing to it for a large sum of money, but it should still be obvious to the contestant that this strategy is terrible. Of course, if she knew that, she'd be smarter than a fifth grader.

1 comment:

MR said...

Brilliant! I love it.