Woo Or No Woo

MSS Skeptics in the Pub regular and professional gambler AJ drops in to offer his take on superstition and gameshows…

Noel Edmonds. Love him or hate him, or dream about setting about him with a claw hammer; one thing you can’t deny is that he has a beard. An immaculate beard. Let’s be honest, it’s a prize-winner. As could you be if you were to appear on his daily quiz show woo spectacular that is Deal or No Deal.

The format is probably familiar to a lot of people by now – the game starts with twenty two contestants, each with a sealed box in front of them containing an amount ranging between 1p and £250,000 that is unknown to them, or indeed anyone bar the independent adjudicator. Each box is clearly numbered on its exterior from 1 to 22 to identify them. A contestant is chosen to start the game, they bring their box to the front of the stage, give a synopsis of their life story to Noel, who nods and emotes in all the right places and then its seatbelts on and we’re off.

The chosen contestant then proceeds to nominate a box number and the contestant behind the box tells the contestant how much they respect/admire/love/”will always be friends with” them and then opens their box to reveal the amount inside and thus eliminating it from the game. The individual cash amounts involved are known by everyone and projected onto a continually updated display at the centre of the set. This is repeated, and at various pre-set intervals a phone on the contestant’s table rings and a shadowy figure known as ‘The Banker’ (who doesn’t actually exist, he is just a conceit to add character to the show, yet somehow all the contestants still think he is real) then offers the contestant a cash amount to stop playing, else they continue opening boxes. Rinse and repeat until there are only two boxes left.

The only skill in this game is calculating the expected value of the game, and measuring the offer made by ‘The Banker’ against this figure whilst factoring in the utility (what the cash offer means to your financial position in the real world) of the Banker’s offer. The expected value in this game is the total of the cash amounts left divided by the number of boxes left in the game, a relatively simple averaging sum.

That’s it. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if your ‘lucky’ number is 11, or you had a dream about a potato running a marathon that had a number 17 painted on it, or your dead dog was called 19. The numbers on the exterior of the boxes are to make it possible to easily identify the box that the contestant is choosing to open, yet the vast majority of the contestants think it makes a difference to the contents of the box. I think it would be instructive to turn the boxes round during the game, mix them up and instead put pictures of animals on them to be used as a way of identifying them, the contestants would then hopefully have a ‘light-bulb’ moment and realise that whatever method is being used to identify the boxes is irrelevant. Yet, never have I seen a contestant point this out. Instead, they are encouraged by each other and Edmonds to pursue all manner of cruddy ideas about strategies about choosing certain boxes to open:

  • “If you feel it’s a small amount in that box, you should go with it”
  • “I had a big amount in my box yesterday, if that helps”
  • “Don’t choose box 22, that’s the death box”
  • “Do you think you’ve got a big amount in your box?”

I do wonder if Edmonds’ brain has become completely addled with all that cosmic ordering, and it has delegated all his thinking to his liver. He once made the memorable statement, without a hint of satire in his voice, that the record number of red boxes (i.e. high cash amounts) eliminated consecutively was by ‘Psychic Sarah’. Not that psychic then was she, Noel?

I once saw an episode which had a white witch as a contestant, who pointed a wand at each box before deciding whether to choose it or not. When it ‘worked’, the crowd whooped and hollered and she accepted the kudos. When it didn’t, she said the wand was not to blame; she had misinterpreted the wand’s vibrations. Is anyone else’s brain hurting? Even when the witch and wand dream-team eliminated the biggest cash amount, the crowd continued to believe. Ultimately, she accepted ‘The Banker’s’ offer which was a five-figure sum and was deemed to be a success by everyone in the studio. At the end, Woo-finder General Edmonds turned to the camera and said that the show had demonstrated that you don’t have to believe other people’s beliefs, but you do have to respect them. Git.

What is scary is that these are just normal members of the public; some are in positions of responsibility making decisions every day that affect not only their own, but other people’s lives. They are displaying the kind of reasoning power that was used in an era when we burnt witches in the street and they’re using it to help with a huge financial decision.

My reason for this article is not to mock the people on the show; it depresses me to see people so poorly let down by the education system. Is it so hard to teach people simple reasoning and critical thinking?

I wonder how that potato did in the marathon.

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  1. #1 by Mike on December 2, 2009 - 19:50

    I’m no maths wizz by any stretch, but I don’t think it’s quite a matter of taking the combined cash value and dividing it between the number of boxes because the cash values aren’t equally spread.

    I think there is some sort of banker involved (the contestants often talk to him on the phone and in the American version you can see him in the background), but whether it’s his own money or not is another question.

    So the skill is fourfold: reading the value of the game and factoring in what it’s worth to you as you say, but also knowing when to leave the game (ie trying to guess what the game will be worth in future rounds), and trying to convince the banker that you’re not going to leave with a crappy offer, so that he doesn’t waste his time and yours with an offer you’re not going to take.

    I’ve often thought of trying to get on the show and treating it exactly as it is. Make it clear to the banker and everyone else that I’m not there to beat the banker, I don’t care if he pays me more than the box is worth or not, as long as I get a healthy slice too. Let everyone know that I’m picking numbers at random and maybe even have a system so they know what I’m going for next, either left to right or 1-22. The only problem I have with that is that if the banker does know where the money is, then I’d be wide open to getting screwed.

    But of course the game thrives on this kind of gambler’s superstition (which IIRC they’ve managed to induce in pidgeons). Noel himself is well-known for having a big gambling problem, and it’s telling that the majority of the contestants will go along with the superstition. It’s likely that’s what the viewers see in the show too, and the producers don’t want to ruin that by having someone on who shows it up for what it really is – random.

  2. #2 by Derm on December 6, 2009 - 19:53

    A rather obvious point but the game kinda depends on the banker making crap offers until the last moment, because any good offer might be taken early.

    This would effectively end the game there and then and render the show unusable as it would be a complete anti-climax even if the editors decided to air it.

    So there is no real skill in the game other than deciding what u can afford to gamble at the end of the random box picking.

    The banker is just some tit reading from a script back stage. Wait, maybe it’s an RBS director giving away cash to total buffoons …..which isn’t unusual!

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