Retail Therapy

Why we shop—and what it means when we do

Family Feud Highlights Our Aversion to Idleness

Contestants play more rounds than they should because they can’t bear idleness.

Game shows provide vivid examples of high-stakes decision-making biases. Previously, I’ve discussed non-rational bidding on The Price is Right, and today I’d like to consider contestant behavior on another childhood favorite, Family Feud.

To understand the biases at work on the Feud, we first need to consider some procedural details. Each episode pits two families against one another. At the beginning of each round, a representative from each family considers a question that had previously been asked to 100 people (for example, “Name something people save”). Each question has several plausible answers that differ in their popularity among the original 100 respondents. The representatives attempt to guess the most popular answer among the original 100 respondents (in this example, “money”). The representative who guesses the more popular answer then consults with their family to decide whether they want to attempt to guess the rest of the answers themselves (one family member at a time, without consulting one another) or whether they want to give that opportunity to the other family (the “play or pass” decision). The family who attempts to guess the rest of the answers must guess them all correctly before accumulating three “strikes” (incorrect answers). If three strikes are accumulated, the other family has a chance to “steal” (consult with one another and then make one attempt to identify one of the remaining correct answers). Families who successfully steal earn all the points from that round, and families who fail to steal forfeit all the points to the other family.

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Arguably, playing makes sense under some circumstances, while passing makes sense under other circumstances. If the family is relatively certain that they can guess all the answers before accumulating three strikes, it certainly makes sense to play. However, if the question is likely to be difficult for both families, then an opportunity to steal is probable, and the group discussion that comes with a steal attempt may be crucial in identifying one of the difficult answers.

Thus, while the play or pass decision should be somewhat difficult and nuanced (depending on the perceived expertise of each family), the actual decision seems to be made with ease: almost all families choose to play rather than pass.

While surprising from a rational perspective, this tendency is completely consistent with several psychological tendencies that favor action over inaction. For example, Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin, and Galit Schein have documented an “action bias” among elite soccer goalkeepers facing penalty kicks. In penalty kicks, goalkeepers stand in front of the center of the net and must choose whether to jump and which direction to jump before they know whether the kick will go to the left, to the right, or down the middle. In an analysis of hundreds of high-stakes soccer games, the researchers found that goalkeepers almost always jump to the left or to the right, whereas the optimal strategy (given the actual distribution of kicks they faced) would be to simply stay put at the center of the net. When goalkeepers jump but fail to stop the kick, they can reassure themselves that they’ve implemented the proper (normal) strategy, but were just unlucky. When goalkeepers simply stay put and fail to stop the kick, they can easily imagine themselves successfully implementing the normal strategy (jumping) and are likely to blame themselves for failing to act.

Relatedly, Chris Hsee, Adelle Yang, and Liangyan Wang recently documented evidence of “idleness aversion.” Their central claim is that people dread idleness and will seek busyness as long as there is some superficial justification for it. On the Family Feud, there is certainly justification for busyness, even though idleness may often be the rational choice.

Of course, instances in which we’re active when we should be passive are by no means limited to the Feud. I recall my own drive home tonight, taking the ultra-long route through too-snowy neighborhood roads rather than crawling slowly along the heavily-trafficked main street. Perhaps Regina Spektor summed it up best in the theme song for Orange Is The New Black: “Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.”

Scott Rick, Ph.D. studies the emotional causes and consequences of shopping.

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