How do game show contestants decide which category to pick?

In the USA there is a television program called Wheel of Fortune. At the end of the program, the winner for that day gets to pick from a list of three categories for a grand prize. I have noticed that the contestants nearly always choose the third category offered. I estimate the third choice is chosen about 85% of the time, the second choice 10%, and the first choice 5%. What is it about the decision-making process in the brain that causes this phenomenon?

– Richard

Thank you, Richard, for introducing me to the world of Wheel of Fortune, which I watched for the first time in order to tackle this question.

What is happening in our brain when we choose between different options?

Well, it’s complicated – and unsurprisingly, the body of scientific literature on human decision-making is vast. To help answer this question, I contacted Carolyn Semmler, an associate professor in the School of Psychology and leader of the Applied Cognition and Experimental Psychology (ACEP) research group at the University of Adelaide.

“There are multiple different ways that decision-making has been thought about by scientists,” says Semmler.

“But one of the ways that I find really useful is thinking about it as the accumulation of evidence for different options over time.”

When we’re faced with a decision, we like to evaluate the supporting evidence for each option.

“As we accumulate more evidence in favour of a particular option, once it reaches that threshold boundary, then we make the decision,” Semmler explains.

But of course, we don’t usually have perfect evidence to rely on – especially in a context like a game show, where we’re being asked to make quick decisions under the gaze of a large audience.

“A lot of economic decision-making models really assume that you’ve got all the time in the world and you need all these complex calculations in your head,” says Semmler.

“In reality, we can’t do that – so we in fact have presumably developed these really efficient and quick ways of making decisions.”

Psychologists think that such “fast and frugal” decision-making is based on a small number of environmental “cues” that we’ve learned over time tend to help us reach a correct decision.

Why might the third category be more popular?

So what might be the cues, or factors, that make the third option more popular on Wheel of Fortune?

Richard wrote that he estimated the third option is chosen 85% of the time. In the name of independent replication, I spent an hour watching the category selection segment for the grand prize round in 10 recent episodes of the US Wheel of Fortune.

It’s a small sample size, but my preliminary findings broadly reflected what Richard reported: in seven out of the 10 episodes, the contestant selected the third category option offered.

But why?

Semmler suggests that a process known as differentiation and consolidation might be at work.

“We know from lots of research that as people are trying to make a decision, they will discount particular attributes of an option to make themselves feel more confident after they’ve made a decision and they’ve actually selected a leading option,” she says.

Under pressure, the contestants could be discounting the first two options simply because they were seen first, then convincing themselves that the third category has to be the best one.

“It’s quite a pervasive effect across a lot of different types of decision-making scenarios and situations,” says Semmler.

Is the order really the most important factor?

However, there was another correlation in my very small dataset that might be in play. Some of the categories were general, with one-word names – examples include “place” and “thing” – while others were more complex, like “living things”, “food and drink”, or “what are you wearing?”

These “complex” categories weren’t offered in every episode I watched, but in seven out of the eight episodes where they were offered, the contestant picked them.

“If the third category is distinctive somehow, then it might be more salient than the other two,” says Adrian Camilleri, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney with a background in consumer psychology and organisational behaviour. He doesn’t watch Wheel of Fortune.

Camilleri suggests this could be related to the “decoy effect”– a consumer behaviour phenomenon where an unattractive “decoy” option nudges you to pick a particular product over a competitor.

What’s more, a more complex category might seem to give you a better shot at finding the correct answer in the game, because it’s more specific. “What are you wearing?” intuitively feels like it narrows the field of possible answers a lot more than “thing” does.

The single instance I saw of a contestant rejecting a “complex” category – namely, “in the kitchen” – had a specific reason attached.

“I try to stay out of the kitchen, so I’m gonna go ‘phrase’,” the contestant quips.

And what about the two episodes without a complex category? In both of these, the contestant selected “phrase” over “event” and “thing(s)” – lending further credence to the theory that contestants tend to choose the most specific, or distinctive, category available.  

If we accept “phrase” as the most specific category for these two episodes, we end up with contestants selecting the most specific option nine of out 10 times.

Putting the scientific process to work

It’s an intriguing thought, but with a sample size of 10 and no psychological expertise, my research isn’t very reliable. I asked Semmler how she would go about empirically testing whether the order truly influences which category people choose.

“You could obviously shuffle the alternatives and see whether or not it’s actually not so much what’s being offered but where it’s being offered in the sequence,” she says.

Another approach could be to ask contestants to rate their confidence in all three options and test whether they do tend to select the category that they have the greatest confidence in.

Finally, researchers could apply a decision-making model based on specific rules and evaluate how well its predictions capture people’s actual behaviour.

“That could help you to understand what the underlying process is that people are using to choose,” Semmler says.

And of course, it would be really helpful to know what Wheel of Fortune’s producers are thinking about when they pick the categories and the order they’re presented in – are they trying to nudge us, after all? But I’m not sure we’ll be able to find that out anytime soon.

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There’s no such thing as a stupid science question, but sometimes the answers can be tricky to find.

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