Thursday, June 28, 2007

How to lose $500,000 (or at least, the opportunity to gain it).

Tonight I caught a few minutes of Fox's "Are You Smarter Than A 5th-Grader?". Some woman had just reached the $500,000 prize level and was about to become the first woman contestant ever to be offered a $1,000,000 question.

For those who don't watch the show, I can't explain it, because I never had, either. But I did pick up this much. At sub-million-dollar levels, a contestant could choose whether or not to answer a question. To win a million dollars, a contestant, after learning what category of question he or she will face, but before seeing the question, must decide whether they will try to answer the question or "drop out of school" - i.e., quit.

Okay, so this lady found out that the category of the $1,000,000 question was music, and she said something like, "I should be able to answer, I played the violin for 10 years."

Then the host, Jeff Foxworthy, did something very interesting. He said, "We all know what the upside is here, because we've been talking about the upside, which is that you could win $1,000,000. Now we need to talk about the downside. If you choose to take the question, and you answer it incorrectly, instead of walking away with $500,000, you'll walk away with $25,000. You'll give up $475,000."

And this lady, who knew that she knew music, quit the game rather than take the chance of "giving up" $475,000.

You know where this is going, right?

After she decided to keep the $500,000, good ol' Jeff let her see the $1,000,000 question.

The lady nearly wept.

The question was something like this: "What composer wrote a set of violin concertos titled 'The Four Seasons?'"

Yeah. The lady who played the violin for 10 years passed on a question about violin concertos. And not just any violin concertos, but possibly the most well-known violin concertos in history.

She gave the correct answer, the answer that could have earned her an additional $500,000: Vivaldi. She knew the $1,000,000 answer, but walked away with half that amount.

Why? Because in the crucial moment of decision, Jeff Foxworthy - who before now always seemed to me to be a stand-up guy, y'know? - screwed with her head. And to be fair, she let him.

He told her that if she missed the question, she would give up $475,000. That was, of course, false. She did not yet have the $475,000. The truth of the matter was that if she had missed the question, she would have walked away with $25,000 more than she came in with, and that ain't shabby for a day's work.

The other truth of the matter, as the lady herself acknowledged, was that 10 years as a violinist meant that she had a better shot at answering a music question that most people would. Especially a fifth-grade music question.

But our smiling host made her doubt what she knew and made her fear losing what she did not have.

One could argue that the woman simply chose certainty over uncertainty. But she actually chose one certainty over another - the certainty of the $500,000 over the certainty of, "I know music."

That decision wasn't about her knowledge. It was about her self-confidence. And Foxworthy's maneuver was about deflating that self-confidence.

And I found myself wondering how much of that goes on in our society - people programming us to doubt what we know and to fear losing what we don't have.

But perhaps the more useful question is, "How can I counteract such programming of myself?"

I'll have to work on that.
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