The Illusion of Choice

Remember when the Merovingian (The Matrix 2) said something like, "Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without." Ah, the good ol' college days of arguing "consumer" philosophy.

So being a reality TV junkie, I'm hip to all the new shows and will usually watch at least the premiere and finale of any show. This new show just started called "Rock Star: INXS." It's by Mark Burnett (Survivor, Apprentice, et. al.) so you figure it's got at least decent production quality and, by the name alone, a modicum of a chance to be successful.

I have to admit I enjoy the show (and I've always liked INXS) -- the premise is: INXS is holding auditions to find a front man for the band. It's got elements of American Idol -- contestants sing, compete, get judged, and people call in to vote for who they like. It's got a hot host (Brooke Burke) and the other normal elements ... so what's my problem?

There's one problem ... the illusion of choice. Throughout the show, audience participation is encouraged (like American Idol) by voting for a favorite (or favorites). The bottom three contestants go before INXS, who collectively judges which one of the three will go home. When there are only two or three contestants left, the winner will also get chosen by the band.

Now, more power to 'em because it's their band. But, they should leave the voting out of the picture -- what impact does voting have? None. It's an illusion. The audience has no real say in who wins or who loses. Person "x" could get the least number of votes every week and still win. What they should do is just eliminate the voting altogether (of course, even if the choice is an illusion, we want to feel like we're part of the process and no doubt this is why American Idol is successful).

Compounding this is the fact that we've had no insight into how these candidates were chosen. They're all pretty decent -- I have no complaints -- but again it illustrates the illusion. Let's try analyzing the illusion this way:

I want a new car, and in an effort to make my family think I'm letting them pick, I go out and find 16 cars I like. Each week, we test drive each one and they rate each one on some arbitrary scale. Of the lowest rated three, I eliminate one of my choosing. This continues until there's only two left -- and I get to choose the winner. Did my family have any say whatsoever in which car we have?

OK -- I'm really not as worked up about this as it may seem, I'm just saying let's replace the "fluff" with something meaningful. I remember in basic psychology some of the ideas behind decision making, and when faced with a large number of possible choices, the best thing to do is winnow down the options by grouping several options together, and then deciding within those groups. It's less daunting to pick between three options.

The beauty of this process is that it generally doesn't matter how you group the items together (in fact, there really shouldn't be any thought process behind this), and this method can handle almost any number of options. The cool part is: in the end, the same decision is generally made regardless of how the items were originally grouped. So vote if you want to, I don't think it will affect the outcome. :)

Comments (5) -

Ken Breit
Ken Breit
7/16/2005 4:02:40 PM #

I agree with you 100 percent.  In general I have never been very big on any reality shows where judges or audiences have to pick/vote/eliminate someone.  They often have to come up with some small petty reason to get rid of someone.  They usually end up continually contradicting themselves at some point anyway.

Thats why I tend to enjoy the reality shows that give you a somewhat inside look of some profession.  Although they are typically used as vehicles to advance a persons business at least they give you some sort of look at the inside of "another world".  Some of my favorites include American Chopper and Deadliest Catch on Disvoery Channel, and Blowout on Bravo.  Yes Blowout.  Anyone who can charge $400 for a haircut deserves to get a TV show in my book.

Dennis G.
Dennis G.
7/17/2005 2:39:21 AM #

Seems like every old has-been singer/rock group is putting together a reality show for keeping their fading dreams from dying.  I have not seen this show, but I have to disagree with your advice that “they should leave the voting out of the picture.”  INXS is doing it right.  Sure you're not going to let America pick your lead singer but you certainly don't want to pick someone the rest of the country thinks sucks.  Let the masses vote and give yourself (along with the fans) a warm fuzzy feeling about the schmo you chose.  The votes may not be making the final decisions but they are influencing the outcome.  It also gives people the “sense” that they are part of the decision process, which is a great political move on the part of INXS.  Take for instance your example with your family ranking the cars. Even though your family didn’t truly choose the vehicle, they are more inclined to accept your decision than if you hadn’t given them any input at all.  But that’s not the point is it?  The point is that they had no bearing on the outcome of your decision…  hhhmmm.  

It is true that there are studies showing that people make their decisions in the first seconds of seeing or experiencing the choices, but you will notice that none of these studies include an outside influence.  Now granted INXS has more than likely chose their lead singer in the first 2 or 3 shows (or maybe even before the show began), but if they initially liked a certain individual and that individual continually gets the least amount of votes each week, I would wager INXS’ admiration for that person will have waned and they will not make the cut.  If there is a study that includes a bending of the ear, you would probably find that it doesn't take much to persuade people into going against their initial instincts.  I think it would be great to see how their record sales fair if INXS were to choose as their new lead singer, someone who consistantly showed up in the bottom 3 of the viewers’ voting versus someone that ranked high with the viewers/fans.

7/17/2005 8:50:42 AM #

Good points DL... I do agree that there are some merits to the process -- a bending of the ear as you put it.  If INXS isn't quite sure who to pick -- say, deciding between 2 people, if one shows up in the bottom 3 continuously they would certainly be at a disadvantage.

And you're absolutely right -- America / the world will likely be more accepting of the decision having been part of the process.  Everyone wins, right?  The band has the far-reaching ability to find the right person they wouldn't normally have access to.  They get tons of publicity, Mark Burnett makes money, CBS makes money, and fans are happy.  The band gets the best feasible choice, and any subsequent album/tour is more successful.

But I still maintain it's an illusion.  Smile  We'll see-- let's put this to the test:  I bet that in the coming episodes, we'll see more emphasis on voting.  We'll hear about how "we are shaping the future of INXS" and "our votes put X, Y, and Z before the judges."  We'll even hear, "America, you voted and here's your top 'N' candidates."

7/18/2005 3:24:06 AM #

Okay, first let me make clear that I think all reality shows suck. They are boring and contrived, and in the end, have very little to do with reality. I keep hoping that their popularity will fade, but like rap, I'm dismayed to see that they are here to stay.

Now that I have that off my chest, I'd like to address your comments about the illusion of choice.

The reason I think the voting part is useful is because people are fundamentally insecure. As DL pointed out, no matter how quickly you make your initial decision, you continually second-guess yourself.

External influences manipulate that uncertainty regularly. Granted, strangers have less affect than someone you know and respect, but if you have access to the opinions of a LOT of strangers, then you might pay more attention.

If there's one thing the reality show producers have figured out, it is how to manipulate the psychology of the audience.

7/18/2005 4:32:58 PM #

I really like Rock Star:INXS.  But I like it entirely for the Rock performaces, and maybe a little bit of the behind-the-scenes performer to performer interactions.  I don't vote, although I do have my favorites that I root for and those that I think are not quite as good as the rest.  I like INXS, but as a whole their final decision won't be a big deal for me, although I will find it interesting who they pick and what their new sound is like.  It may even peak my interest enough to buy the next album or catch a concert where I might not have cared to before.

I don't put much weight on the voting, although it is interesting to see what other people as an aggregate think - kind of like the "Ask The Audience" lifeline in Millionaire.  So far the Audience vote and subsequent band choice was a good fit for what I was thinking.

Comments are closed

My Apps

Dark Skies Astrophotography Journal Vol 1 Explore The Moon
Mars Explorer Moons of Jupiter Messier Object Explorer
Brew Finder Earthquake Explorer Venus Explorer  

My Worldmap

Month List