Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Life lessons of The Amazing Race

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 [1]. 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.

[1] 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.

29 Comments

  1. The best part about such programs is their *fair and balanced* approach to editing, so that everyone is shown in just about the worst possible light using the 20/20 hindsight afforded to editors and producers of reality shows.

  2. I have been looking to find out, how can an individual can sign up to be a contestant on (the Amazing Race TV Show) I do believe my husband & I will be a great contestant for the show.

    Please do get back to me; on info on how to become a contestant on the TV Show (The Amazing Race)

    Thank you

  3. I WANT MY SON AND I TO BE CONTESTANTS ON THE AMAZING RACE. PLEASE ADVISE ME ON HOW TO DO THIS SO MY INFORMATION GETS TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE. THANK YOU.

  4. I would like for me and my fiance to become a contestant on The Amazing Race. Can you tell me how to get the information. Thank you.

  5. CLARENCE MCILVAIN JR.

    October 9, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    I WOULD LOVE FIND OUT HOW TO BECOME A CONTESTANT ON THE AMAZING RACE. I NEVER MISS THE SHOW. AND I KNOW MY WIFE AND I WOULD BE GOOD CONTESTANTS.PLEASE GET BACK TO US, WERE WAITING FOR A GREAT ADVENTURE. THANK YOU

  6. To sign up for the Amazing Race, go to the CBS
    application
    web site. (Currently, they are not accepting applications.)

  7. Question? Will there be another family Amazing Race competition in the near future? And if Yes! When can I find out or be notified to register me and my family or when can I fill-out an application? Please email me soon! Thanks! JVM

  8. I have been wanting to know if there would be another Family Amazing Race competition, and if so How and when? can my family sign up to be contestants? please email me as soon as possible! Thankyou.

  9. julie and randy bernstein

    November 20, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    my husband and i race to finish chores phone calls etc…so we can watch reruns of amazing race its great we love the narrative of the world and almost feel like wer’re ther and traveling arond the world how do you actually get in touch with phil??? we are 50 and 45 years of age don’t wait too long before we are out of shape to whoop thwe youngsters

  10. Just like everyone else, How can you become a contestant on the Amazing Race, and is there another family race comeing up soon? Thank You

  11. I would definitely love to get more information on how to become a contestant on the Amazing Race. I watch all of the shows, purchased season one, and have a sincere desire to pursue this experience with my fiance. Thanks

  12. My nephew (15 yrs. old) and I are really interested in becoming a contestant in the Amazing Race. How can we become contestants? We are very interested. Please let us know something. Thank you!

  13. Question? Well my teacher and I are big fans of the show..but i am only 16 and the only time i would be able to compete on the show would be the ‘family season’ well i was wondering if there would be a new season in which anyone could join cause i cant wait till im 21

  14. I would love to see my 2 sons compete on one of the amazing race shows. Both are in their mid 30’s. My youngest son spent 5 years in the Marine Corp serving our country and oldest son is involved in the computer world. Growing up they seemed to always work together to solve any problem. It would be very interesting to see if as adults they were able to conquer the amazing race.

  15. I have a co-worker who would be great on amazing race. Can you please send information on how to sign up to be a contestant on the show?

  16. Hi, i beleive my brother and i would be a great contestant for the Amazing Race becuase we both love to travel we’re young and strong. We love the show and have always wanted to sign up and compete. Can you please send me some information. thanks
    Ashley

  17. Desiree Duclayan-Parsonsson

    November 5, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Aloha!

    I did not know what the Amazing Race was until I was a part of a production crew when the race came through Kauai, Hawaii (2 or 3 yrs. ago)when the contestants had to go on a zipline across Wailua Falls! I loved all the hype about the race & checked out the show & have enjoyed watching it with my husband ever since(whenever possible). We would love to be contestants on your show, we are newly weds in our 30’s and could sure use the money! How do we sign up?

    Desiree & James

  18. Elizabeth and Chad

    November 12, 2006 at 11:39 pm

    My son and I would like to enter into your amazing race. would it be possible to be notified when CBS is taking application for contestants again…

  19. I would like my father and I to be contestants on this show and I would like to know how we could find out about requirements and how to audition for the show.

  20. How do you go by signing up for the next Amazing Race? I have been looking everywhere to try and find an answer. If anyone could tell me I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

  21. charlotte owens

    March 1, 2007 at 10:43 am

    hello i have been trying to figure out how to become a contestant on the amazing race i feel that me and my husband would be great canidates for the show please email me in regards thank you.

  22. virginia perez

    March 11, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    hi, would someone please be so kind and let me know how to apply for the next amaizing race, or please e-mail me the information i need to vp41179@yahoo.com. thanks..:-)..

  23. Hello,
    I would like to recieve information on how to become contestents on the Amazing Race Show. My ex-husband and I are interested in participating in this unique adventure.

  24. Dennis Amundson

    May 22, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    How in the heck does someone find a way to become a contestant on The Amazing Race. please give me the info because the next million is MINE.

  25. Patricia Tibbetts

    May 30, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    My brother and I would like to know how to sign up as contestants. Please e-mail me

  26. Would like to know how to sign up for the amazing race. My husband and I have been together 24/7 every sinece we met. Would love the chance to to share an experiance like this with who I consider my soul mate.

  27. My family and I are interested in joining a family edition of the amazing race. Do they know when the next family edition is coming up? Thanks You. -Casey Olson

  28. Sylvia Clingman

    November 6, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    I want to know when and where the next casting call will be held. My husband and I are interested in signing up. Thanks,

    Sylvia

  29. You can get information about participating in the Amazing Race at CBS’ own Amazing Race Web site.

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