Joe Posnanski, one of the best sports writers around - one of the best writers, period - brought the following topic up about a year ago, and while he may be an unlikely source of information for a TV blog, he provides a brilliant insight into just how television does this. It concerns a British game show called, believe it or not, Golden Balls. It's a really good piece, and I would have linked to it even if I didn't have one thing to add to it. In fact, I think you should stop right here and read it now. If you don't, though, I'll give you another chance later.
As you'll gather from the always-reliable Wikipedia, Golden Balls was a show that tested every facet of human emotion: trust, greed, betrayal, passivity, lust - and did it all under the naked lights of a television studio.* The premise was simple enough, as Posnanski says, starting with a team of two contestants. "[They] would open these, well, golden balls and build up money in what was sort of a joint bank account. It’s actually a bit more convoluted than that, but for the point in this post that doesn’t really matter. Just know that money gets piled up."
*Pos notes his surprise, which I share, that this show hasn't yet made it onto American television. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why - is it any more extreme than anything that's already on?
At the end of the show, with the two having amassed something between £10,000 and £120,000, the denouement comes. Each of the contestants is presented with two golden balls to choose from. One says "Split," the other "Steal." The contestants know which ball is which, so there's no confusion there. Each one of them chooses a ball, in a variation on the old Prisoners' Dilemma puzzle. One of three things then happens:
- If they both choose to split the money, they will split the money.
- If one chooses to split the money and the other chooses to steal, the stealer gets everything.
- If they both choose to steal, nobody wins any money.
When the big moment arrives, you can cut the tension with a knife. It exposes, Posnanski points out, "the stark and bare humanity" of our lives. Most of the time the two players agree in advance that they're going to choose "Split" - after all, half of the prize is better than nothing. But what if one of them gets greedy? That's where the psychology comes in. If you can convince your partner that "Split" is the only logical choice, and then choose "Steal" yourself, you get everything. But if your partner is overcome by a case of the greeds and goes for "Steal" as well, thinking that he's going to outsmart you, then each of you winds up with nothing. The only safe, logical choice, therefore, is "Split" - but, most of you are probably thinking, a man doesn't become rich by playing it either safe or logical. Particularly, when money is concerned, by being safe.
The whole thing is a fascinating, grotesque look at the human psyche. Joe focuses on one particular episode involving two gentlemen named Ibrahim and Nick it what could serve as a master class in psychology, running the gamut of all those emotions I listed above, but centering on trust and greed. You see, unlike most contestants, Nick tells Ibrahim outright that he's going to Steal. But, he goes on to say, if Ibrahim will only choose Split, thus allowing Nick to get all the money, he - Nick - promises that he will split the money with Ibrahim 50/50, as if they had both chosen Split. As Poz says,
See the difference? Instead of Nick appealing to Ibrahim’s essential goodness like everyone else does, he challenges Ibrahim’s fury. OK, he’s basically saying, I’m telling you straight out I’m going to steal. I know that ticks you off but, frankly, I can’t help that. I’m stealing. Now, what are you going to do? How badly do you want to punish me for choosing steal? Are you so angry that you will choose steal yourself, assuring that neither of us will get a dime? Or will you choose split and take the chance — however low you might believe it to be — that I really will give you half the money?
Pos discusses this in quite a bit more detail which I won't repeat here - he's a much better writer than I am, you'll enjoy his account more - but suffice it to say I found the whole thing spellbinding, if not absolutely brilliant. (You can also see it play out for yourself in this YouTube clip here.)
I'm assuming that by now you've read Posnanski's piece and watched the clip of Ibrahim and Nick, but if you haven't, that's all right - I'll wait until you've caught up. Go ahead.
(Sound of absent-minded humming, toe tapping.)
All right, everyone back? What did you think? Was not that one of the greatest examples of psychology you've ever seen on television? I don't want to read too much into it, or exaggerate its importance*, but I thought there was a deep existential element to the whole thing, an exploration of the meaning of trust that goes far beyond what you're likely to see in most scripted programs.
*Exaggeration: something I never, ever, ever do.
I'm not advocating that we all become reality television fans; that's probably the one and only episode of Golden Balls that I'll be checking out, at least anytime soon. But this particular example, and Posnanski's retelling of it, is utterly fascinating. It is as good an example as we're apt to see of the way television can show us what we're all about. I would like to think that the best drama, and even the best comedy, can still do that; unfortunately, at least on the networks, I'm not sure it always can. But, at least in this case, it's storytelling every bit as gripping as anything you'll see in scripted TV.