My wife and I have been watching “The Amazing Race”. I’d like to say that I’ve been watching because of my love of travel and scholarly interest in Victorian expeditions and scientific travel, but who am I kidding. It’s eye candy. But it turns out to be eye candy with some nutritional value: the game is an experiment in cooperative behavior in a competitive context.
NOTE: TO APPLY FOR THE AMAZING RACE, GO TO THE CBS WEB SITE. Good luck!
My wife and I have been watching the reality TV game show "The Amazing Race". I’d like to say that I’ve been watching because of my love of travel and scholarly interest in Victorian expeditions and scientific travel, but who am I kidding. It’s eye candy. But it turns out to be eye candy with some nutritional value: the game is an experiment in cooperative behavior in a competitive context.
For those who haven’t watched "The Amazing Race," a bit of background. The race began with twelve teams, each with two people . It’s an around-the-world race with thirteen stage. Each stage takes about a day, and contains a mix of travel (flying or driving, or both) and tasks (which are real dog’s breakfast). The last team to complete the stage gets eliminated.
What’s interesting about the game is that it’s a paradigmatic example of a paradoxical but common phenomenon: you have to cooperate with other teams to survive, but you have to compete with them to win. The winners of the race will get a million dollars, which is a great incentive to compete; but in the early stages, there’s a lot of explicit cooperation. Why?
First, each stage has a rhythm that ends up equalizing the teams. The stages usually begin late at night, and teams almost always reach their first destination several hours before they can actually perform the task that will let them move on. This levels the playing field: yesterday’s tortises catch up to the hares. Since teams don’t accumulate time advantages over the course of the race (as you do in the Tour de France), and since the stages are designed with these equalizers, in any stage there’s little opportunity for teams to break away from the pack. In fact, given the structure and rhythm of the game, it’s not so important to be first, but it is absolutely critical that you NOT be last.
Since no one can get too far ahead, and since this stage’s first-mover advantage will get eliminated tomorrow, there’s less incentive to withhold information from people who have caught up with you; you’re not too likely to shake them, nor do you necessarily need to.
Second, most players figure out pretty quickly that your team may need help one day, so it’s in your interest to help others, and to not be too pushy or mean. It’s hard to keep other teams from seeing you get on a particular train, buy a ticket from United instead of Quantas, or whatever; so you might as well be nice about it. Jumping the cue for a flight that won’t leave for four hours is pretty dumb: it buys you little, but costs you a lot of social capital. A team that refuses to share or play nicely can get shunned quickly, with potentially bad results.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. There’s a tension built into this structure: at what point do you stop cooperating with other teams, and start competing with them? After all, there can only be one winner. Further, as the number of surviving teams dwindles, the odds of you being cut out of the herd increase, which is a good incentive to look out for yourself. A great deal of the drama of "The Amazing Race" comes when teams start to make this calculation.
This cooperation-within-competition tension turns out to be a popular one with reality TV shows these days. "Survivor" operates on a similar model, with people cooperating on tasks, then voting each other off the island. An even better example is the game show "The Weakest Link." There, players take turns answering questions; the more questions they get right in a round, the bigger that round’s pot gets; but if one player gets a question wrong, the pot empties. No one owns the pot yet, but everyone wants it to be as full as possible. So each player has an incentive to get rid of people who can’t answer questions. But each player also has an incentive to get rid of people who know more than they do.
Thus the tension: you have to cooperate to generate a large pot; you want smart players to make a lot of money; but the players who can best help you reach your goal are also your most dangerous competitors.
At a certain point, the game tips, and you have to shift your attention away from eliminating the weak, to killing off the strong. Put another way, you have to choose between two forms of greed: Do you cooperate with your competitors, increasing both risk for yourself and the reward? Or do you try to target your competitors, thus lowering your risk, but at the expense of a smaller pot?
I suspect you could probably explain a lot of herd animal behavior in similar terms: there’s broad cooperation in seaching for food, avoiding predators, etc., even though there’s competition for mates and status. David Sloan Wilson identified a similar paradox when he said, "The fundamental problem of social life is that selfishness beats altruism within a group. But altruistic groups trump selfish groups." (Empahsis added.)
One doesn’t want to speak too loudly about the benefits of reality TV, but perhaps they’ll help some people learn that pure competition isn’t the only model for game playing, or real life.
 To keep things dramatic, the show’s creators choose a mix of couples, some of whom have some strange issues. This year, one team is a gay couple, another is a boyfriend and girlfriend who are devout Christians (they were described as "Dating 12 years, virgins"). In previous races there have been parents and children, a husband and wife who were getting a divorce, people who were just Bad Personalities, and so on.
Update 12/8/2006: Those of you who interested in being on The Amazing Race should visit the Amazing Race Wants You and fill out the application.