Would “Deal or No Deal” be as entertaining if we weren’t so superstitious?
Almost everyone claims to not be superstitious, because that, in their minds, identifies them as gullible or unscientific.
I even caught myself being superstitious while watching a Maria Sharapova tennis match the other day.
“I can’t watch,” I said to my companion. “Whenever I watch, she plays horribly.”
As if my watching somehow related to the play of the world’s best female tennis player.
Contestants on “Deal or No Deal” appear to be chosen for their predilection to superstition. I watched the other day when a woman literally squatted down to the floor, shouting “Low, low, low” as a model opened up a case to reveal a million-dollar missed opportunity.
“We have to get low, Howie,” the contestant told the show’s host, comedian Howie Mandell. “We have to get low because I want a low number.”
Professional baseball players are notoriously superstitious. Each has his own ritual before taking the field, pitching the ball or stepping up to the plate to take a swat.
Bingo players carry little dolls and talismans, hoping that the thingies on the table will give them good luck in playing the game.
We all seem programmed at least to some extent to believe that when good things happen, they happen because of something completely unrelated that we did. And if we could just do it again that same way, good things will continue to happen. If we could just figure out what it was that we did right the first time.
Psychic Sylvia Browne has made tons more wrong predictions than she has correct one (as you can see for yourself at http://stopsylviabrowne.com), but people who want to believe continue to funnel millions of dollars to her in the absurd hope that she can really speak to the dead — a feat she clearly can’t do.
But people still believe in her and other psychics of her ilk because there’s something inherently superstitious in us that leads us to assign intrinsic value into that which we hope for yet don’t understand.
“Deal or No Deal” is a game of pure chance. The odds are, as they say, heavily weighted toward the house in that game. Not only do you only have a 1 in 30 chance of picking the case that contains a million bucks, you increase the odds against you every time you pick a case that weights the mathematical formula in favor of the “banker,” who can reasonably estimate the odds of you beating his “bet,” which the show calls his “offer.”
Yet people agonize over each case they choose to open, trying somehow to spontaneously attain extra-sensory cognition so that they could predict the correct case to open to drive the “banker’s” offer up. That hope, of course, is a subconscious hedge against the possibility that the contestant hasn’t psychically picked the case that contains $1 million.
It’s actually quite a cool case study in human psychology.
Mandell asks each contestant if they believe the case they’ve chosen at the beginning of the game contains the big prize. Without exception, they all say they do.
But none of them really believe it, or they wouldn’t agonize about which cases they’re opening next on the stage. If they were absolutely convinced they had the million-dollar case, they wouldn’t care what was in any of the other cases.
Superstitiously, they feel they must affirm their non-existent belief in their choice, so that the gods of “Deal or No Deal” will smile upon them and validate the choice they don’t really believe they’ve made correctly.
It rather reminds me of church folk, actually.
Even when people are full of doubt, they convince themselves that they must affirm to themselves and to God that they wholeheartedly believe something that they really don’t believe.
But that’s another column.
It is, however, tangentially related to “Deal or No Deal,” as is all superstition. We humans tend to almost all hold the irrational belief that our prior actions somehow affected things completely out of our control, and if we continue repeating those actions, we’ll continue having results that please us — even in the face of failure after failure to achieve that goal.
For instance, though a baseball player does the same ritual every time he steps up to the plate, he doesn’t hit a home run every time he steps up to the plate. Yet he continues doing the same superstitious ritual, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t work more often than it does work.
That behavior isn’t restricted to humans, though.
Psychology pioneer and Harvard professor B. F. Skinner once did an experiment that taught pigeons to be superstitious.
Skinner set up a machine that fed pigeons at regular intervals, completely regardless of the pigeons’ actions or behavior.
After a time, Skinner observed pigeons doing weird things — strange dances and gyrations. He began to notice correlations between the dances and behaviors the pigeons had been exhibiting shortly before they were fed.
It’s as if the little wheels in their pigeon brains had started clicking and the pigeons had thought, “well, I was doing the Michael Jackson slide with my head and I got fed. Maybe I’ll try it again and get fed again.”
Within a relatively short period of time, the pigeons actually became superstitious, apparently believing (as much as a pigeon can believe, I suppose) that their actions somehow influenced a feeder that was completely outside their realm of control. They held that “belief” even in the face of failure after failure, because every once in awhile, the dance worked and they got fed.
As humans, we tend to also forget the times our superstition didn’t pay off, and we remember the times it does.
I know a lot of people, for instance, who believe they have the ability to know who’s calling them when the phone rings, even without looking at the number on the phone. That rather common phenomenon is the result of selective memory, and it’s easily disproven, but not so easily shed. If you want to disprove it, do this: keep a record of every time the phone rings. Before you look at the phone, write down who you think is calling you. Then, at the end of a week, compare how many you got right to how many you got wrong. The smart money is on you getting way more wrong than you get right — or at least doing no better than random chance.
Even if you get one wrong, your ability to predict who’s on the phone has been disproven, because if such an ability isn’t always accurate, it’s really not useful at all.
I have the uncanny ability to be looking at clocks when the time is exactly 6:13, which also happens to be my birthday. And by “uncanny,” I mean it happens a lot. Way more often than you would suspect would be random chance.
But the reality is, I just happen to notice 6:13 more than I do other times, simply because 6:13 has significance for me. I look at clocks a lot during the day, but I don’t find myself thinking, “Man, I have the uncanny ability to look at clocks when it’s 1:21.” Why? Because 1:21 has no significance to me, except for the fact that it happens to be the time right now.
Our superstitious minds are wired to assign significance to things we observe and not question why. It’s that predilection that allows cold reading fakes such as Browne to take advantage of us — and keeps us fascinated with shows like “Deal or No Deal.”
While the superstitious among us are at poker tables hoping that somehow, mystically, they’ll win a hand or two enough to rake in a little cash, the scientific among us were figuring out a mathematical formula of card counting that allowed them to accurately estimate what the dealer had in his hand and thus win enough money from the casinos that they had the practice outlawed.
As the “banker” on “Deal or No Deal” knows, games of chance are really just games of understanding and making reasonable bets on the odds. A person reasonably adept at math could take the show for a ride, simply because she would understand the odds as they narrowed, and make a reasonable — and unsuperstitious — decision on when the odds of losing were greater than the amount of money she’d lose by trying to bet against the odds and being wrong.
But that wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.
The odds are overwhelming that you can reach Leif M. Wright at email@example.com. They’re not so good that you can reach him at 684-2906, but you’re welcome to try to beat the odds.
Show exposes the superstition in nearly all of us
Would “Deal or No Deal” be as entertaining if we weren’t so superstitious?
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