Why Game Shows Prove We’re All Pigeons.

September 30, 2011

A Saturday night in. Sitting on the sofa after dinner with the partner, a glass of wine and whatever happens to be on tele. In this case we find a new game show, conceived by Simon Cowell, the man responsible for such brilliance as Leon Jackson and Joe Mceldrey (no, I don’t know either), and commented as ‘the most expensive game show ever!’. As you may or may not have guessed, it’s ‘Red or Black?’, with the premise as childishly simple as the title insinuates. Many people pick between a choice of two in seemingly more and more ludicrous events, and those who choose right go on to the next round. Eventually this is whittled down to one person who was more talented than the others at choosing red or black, who then has to choose once more to win a million pounds, or go away empty handed and render the last 3 hours totally irrelevant.


Of course, you’d expect this to include the celebrity plugging their latest noise bucket, and yes, here comes Leona Lewis, who’s so totally idolised that even picking a briefcase must be worshipped like some sort of tribal sacrifice. But this isn’t my problem with the show. In fact I don’t really have a problem with the show at all. The production is the usual blend of bright lights and loud noises, and the use of ‘human interest stories’ leaves people sobbing on their sofas. Apparently. To understand what disappoints me, we have to look back to a game show conceived not ten years ago, which has become the stalwart of debate among the twitter people and the suspicious alike.


Never has opening boxes been such an incredible thing as it has been in Deal or No Deal. Before its time the idea of shouting numbers at people while a man with a peculiar beard talks of spirituality and game playing strategy was laughable even by the standards of the Americans. But no more, for now it’s the most important thing in ordinary people’s lives, and it’s changed the way human consciousness can be popularly perceived. For now, apparently, we have the power to influence what money we find lodged in the lid of red boxes simply through will power, faith and belief. The banking devil will try to steal my money from me, but my belief in the boxes will show me the light, with a little help from the Messiah Edmonds. Yes, I may have slightly overdone the links to religious beliefs, but that’s not my point nor prerogative. It is the fact that we as people seem to think our own behaviours can influence what is an ultimately random decision. We can pick those boxes in such a way as to find the top prize. We can decide to choose either red or black in such a way as to influence the random event that’s occurring.


This is what game shows are apparently telling us. But as you more astute readers may realise, this doesn’t seemingly have much to do with pigeons. Unless you’re a fan of B. F. Skinner, in which case please try not to brag. And don’t come to my house.


In [year?] Mr Skinner conducted an experiment in which he placed several pigeons in cages with feeding tubes attached enabling delivery of food at random intervals. The pigeons food would be simply dropped at random times. That’s it. Doesn’t exactly sound like a detailed experiment does it? But the food delivery was not the thing being monitored. It was the reaction of those pigeons. And the results were startling. As food was dropped at random times, the pigeons believed that their actions were making the food appear. The pigeons thought that an action they did, movement they made or sound they created made the food appear. They would continue to repeat that action, convinced that they were affecting the result. Starting to sound familiar yet? People play Red of Black and Deal or No Deal like the pigeons played the game with the food; with the inherent natural conviction that we somehow affect the outcome.


It might be slightly depressing to think that we are all the same as pigeons. Most people walk with disdain through Trafalgar Square of an afternoon at the vermin that defecate on our cars and steal our discarded lunch. But the truth is rather self-evident, and ultimately a bit depressing. We all believe we can affect the outcomes of random events through our actions. It’s almost impossible for people to accept that they have no control over whatever situation they face; somehow I must be able to influence how my team will do at home this weekend?!? Well I’m sorry, but you and I and everyone else cannot do anything to control this outcome. Or when the pigeons will be fed. Or whether the roulette wheel will end up on red or black.




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