What ‘Deal or No Deal’ can teach us about risk.

What ‘Deal or No Deal’ can teach us about risk.

“Let’s see if you were right…” The illogic behind every reveal in the show.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'

July 3rd, 2020 at 12:04 am EDT

“Let’s see if you were right…” 

Every time Howie Mandel says it, I swear, I nearly jump through the ceiling. 

The game show Deal or No Deal, now in syndication in senior citizens’ houses across the country, classically pitted a humble consumer-contestant against a provider-banker, the banker shadowed and characterized as greedy and bitter, his silhouette literally picking up a phone and gesturing into the air in anger. Mandel would reiterate to the contestants, “Oh, he’s not happy…”

The contestant in competition with this banker was always a person who struggled with scarcity in their lives. The show’s producers went to great lengths to visualize for us just how bad each player’s situation was. 

“What are you going to do with the money?”

“Well, my mother was diagnosed with cancer last year, and because of a pre-existing condition that put her at risk for the cancer, her insurance company said that—”

“All right! Let’s see what the banker’s thinking!”

As it turns out, the players needed the money for such luxuries as medical bills and student loans.

The rules: To begin, a contestant picks among 26 numbered briefcases held by ultra-thin, female models. The model holding it then steps aside.

In each round, the contestant with the help of the models rifles through the remaining 25 cases in bulk “elimination” picks, either taking a deal offered by the banker, or moving forward to eliminate more cases.

The briefcases in sum hold a set amount of different monetary values, so as the briefcases are eliminated, and their values crossed off the board, the banker’s offer moves up or down based on which values are left.

At the end, player’s have either taken a deal, or they’ve won an amount, however small or large, displayed in their original pick, their original briefcase.

30 Rock famously spoofed the show, when Kenneth the NBC page intuited an off-brand version called Gold Case, the model with the actual gold visibly struggling to hold her case.

With Deal, always when the player had taken a deal or made a major decision, Howie would utter, “Let’s see if you made the right call…” 

The show has glaring problems in its exploitation of, and toying with those in need — but let’s just stick to one problem for the sake of this Sift.

Howie’s little investigations are downright nonsense: A risky move’s success is not proof that you were right to take that risk. In fact, its panning out might cause you to justify your recklessness post-hoc and make future decisions you otherwise never would have made, taking on more risk than is necessary or rational. 

Also true, is that a safe move’s failure cannot change how strategic, well thought-out and “right” the original choice was.

A simple example: 

Sixteen-year-old Charlie doesn’t go to a drinking party at a friend’s house because he is worried about the cops getting called. The party concluded, he later found out, without the police getting called. Therefore, Charlie was wrong to stay home.

Okay, Howie.

For a thousand other reasons, Charlie might have made the right call whether the party got busted or not. It’s likely that Charlie assessed risk properly and acted accordingly. He considered his social world, but also the greater world.

We shouldn’t go too hard on Howie, though. He’s a game show host doing his job. On the clock, he’s extra susceptible to a common cognitive bias called “the framing effect,” where circumstances around you change how you think and reason. The lights. The crowd. The money.

Think well, humans. Think deeper than the basic causes and effects of the world. Think of your life as multi-dimensional, in shades and in color, never in strict black and white, instead with pathways and avenues shifting form and demanding your full attention.

Do not judge yourself so unempathically after mindful choices if it turns out that a large gamble would have made you extra-rich, a shortcut panning out in hindsight.

The more textured advice is not always to play it safe, either — don’t strawman me. No, I’m merely inviting you to incorporate more words into your descriptions of decisions than just “right” and “wrong.” I’m inviting you to think deeper.

Navigate your life as a captain would. Feeling seasick? That’s a good sign: now you feel all waves of consequence.

We can evaluate the value of our choices using their results, informing us like sports records as to which were “good” and which were “bad.”

Mindful and careful thought about big decisions is always right, even if the result after a dice roll hits appears to indicate otherwise. Think with qualification. Think descriptively; that is the way to a better record in the game of life.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'