For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.


In Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman discuss a contestant on Qui Veut Gagner des Millions?, the French version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, who asks the audience for help with the question, “Which of these revolves around the Earth?” His options are the sun, the moon, Venus, and Mars. While it might be surprising that he doesn’t know, more shocking is the result of the audience poll — 56% say the sun:

How can we explain this? The easiest answer, and the video’s title, is that French people appear to be stupid, or were never informed about the Copernican Revolution. But the Brafmans have an explanation based on different cultural attitudes toward reality shows and, ultimately, ideas about fairness.

The general outlines of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? are the same regardless of country. But distinct cultural patterns have emerged in how audiences act when asked for help. In the U.S., contestants can count on the audience’s goodwill; regardless of the question asked, audiences appear to do their best to help contestants out and the Brafmans report that data shows the audience is right over 90% of the time. I must admit it had never occurred to me that audiences would do anything other than try to be helpful. Though I don’t watch game shows now, as a kid I regularly watched The Price Is Right, among others, with my family, and we always inherently rooted for the contestant, cringing if they seemed to make a bad choice and rejoicing if they won big. We truly wanted these complete strangers to win.

But not all national audiences are so cooperative. When the show was introduced in Russia, contestants quickly learned to be wary of asking the audience for help because Russian audiences frequently mislead them, intentionally giving the wrong answer. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the players or the questions they ask for help on.

In France, audiences seem to fall in the middle. They don’t regularly attempt to trick players, as Russian (and according to my googling, Ukrainian) audiences do. But unlike U.S. audiences, they don’t seem willing to help under any circumstances, either. They appear to intentionally give the wrong answer if the contestant asks for help on a question the audience perceives as too easy. If they think the player ought to know the answer they give the wrong response, apparently thinking the contestant deserves to lose if they’re so stupid. In the video you can hear audience laughter when Henri decides to go with the results of the audience poll.

Ori and Rom Brafman suggest this relates to notions of fairness, which have been shown to vary widely by culture. They say that in the U.S., we think it’s fair for people to win large sums of money even if they seem dumb, while in France, there is more concern about whether the individual deserves to win. They consulted historians of Russian society who suggest audience behavior there results from a general mistrust of those who gain sudden wealth. However, they provide no data to directly connect the audience members’ intentional wrong answers to cultural perceptions of fairness more broadly, so I’m somewhat hesitant about this theoretical leap. If you’re an enterprising grad student looking for a dissertation topic, perhaps you can take this project on and get back to me with your results.

But I think this topic is also interesting for the way it highlights the intersection of globalization and local cultures. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, like other reality shows such as the various varieties of Idol, are international franchises (Millionaire is owned by Sony), designed to be easily transferable to and implemented in many countries with the same basic blueprint — simply add local talent and you’ve got a successful TV show. But as the variation in Millionaire shows, differences inevitably creep in as a global product or process is used or interpreted on the local level, sometimes in superficial ways but other times to a degree that significantly alters the original product.

Thanks to Kelly V. for the tip about the book!