Behavioural Insights and 'The Bachelor'

26 November 2013Behaviour insights team

Categorytelevision

Tagspop culture, television

As I sat down to watch the final episode of the first season of the Australian ‘The Bachelor’, I could not help but reflect on the behavioural insights (BI) underpinnings of the show.

the bachelor

As I sat down to watch the final episode of the first season of the Australian ‘The Bachelor’, I could not help but reflect on the behavioural insights (BI) underpinnings of the show. Assuming of course that the show stands true to its ‘reality’ television claim (I have no claim either way), how is it possible that essentially 25 women concurrently fall for one man so quickly? In real life, the very notion seems outlandish. But for some reason, in the context of the ‘Bachelor’, this becomes possible. 

Let us turn to BI for some guidance as to how this might be possible. There are undoubtedly a number of BI elements at play including the availability and affect biases, the halo effect and the gambler’s fallacy (and many more I’m sure). However, in light of some recent personal reading, I have decided to focus on a just couple of BI principles.

Social Norming and Confirmation Bias

I will start with an unlikely source. Professor Robert Shiller (a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) has published extensively on behavioural finance, particularly around the impact of social interactions on property prices in the US. For those of you based in Sydney, a constant source of conversation among friends and family are the high property prices across the city. Shiller purports that it is these very conversations that support maintenance of high property prices (artificially so) and was a source of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US which led to the global economic downturn. The last part aside, how does this relate to the Bachelor you ask? Part of the ‘Bachelor’ involves the 25 women engaging with one another in their time apart from ‘Tim’. From what I have seen (or have been shown by the footage), Tim is the source of constant conversation, most of which is positive. Like the property market, with every conversation, the women in the show are confirming to each other that Tim is ‘the perfect guy’ for them. This social norming effect and confirmation bias can be profound and may explain how so many women (and I am sure men, in an alternate version) fall for one man in such a short space of time. 

Scarcity

The next BI effect I will draw your attention to is scarcity. There are two elements of this at play in ‘The Bachelor’. First, is the more traditional principle of scarcity from social psychology, as well as the latest research from Professor’s Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. 

The more traditional approach refers to scarcity in terms of the ‘rule of the few’. In his famed book ‘Influence’, Professor Robert Cialdini refers to a cookie experiment conducted by social psychologist Stephen Worcel. In the experiment, half the group received a cookie from a jar that contained ten cookies, while the other half received a cookie from a jar containing two cookies. The results of this experiment were that the quality of the cookies from the jar of two was rated far more highly than those in the jar of ten, despite being exactly the same. I am sure you can see where I am going with this one by now. No doubt the contagious competition created by having only one man available heightened his appeal (not that he really needed the extra help), leading to the development of romantic feelings in almost a rapid fire fashion.  

The second element of scarcity focusses around the impact of scarcity on an individual’s decision making ability. Mullainathan and Shafir write about this mainly in the context of poverty or a lack of financial resources. However, they also talk about scarcity more broadly, particular around scarcity of time. In the world of ‘The Bachelor’ (note the singular), each woman only has limited time with Tim. From what I have seen of the show, there is a constant struggle for Tim’s attention and time, so much so, that many of the women become completely fixated by this and the lack of attention they are receiving. Mullainathan and Shafir’s work suggest that when an individual is facing the scarcity effect, their ability to make well considered decisions are significantly affected. Many of the women fall for Tim, casting aside the fact that he has been balancing his affections with 24 other women and that the whole process is being broadcast across the country (and even overseas). In the real world (without this artificially created scarcity) would the women behave in the same way? I dare say, probably not. 

Salience

To my final observation. With a little bit of research, I can see that there has been 17 seasons of the ‘The Bachelor’ in the United States (not to mention ‘Bachelorettes’ as well), with spinoffs in other countries. The show has been around for a long time, with numerous seasons of the US version shown in Australia. Why then has the local version done so well in Australia? Last night’s episode culminated in 1.74 million viewers by the time of the final decision, making it a ratings hit (not to mention a conversation starter around the water fountain). How does this happen? BI would point us in the salience direction. As we all know, how relatable something is can have major impact on how well it is received. This has been shown in experiments around increasing personal savings through the use of age-progressed photos of individuals and comparable personas in advertising. The purveyors of entertainment at Channel 10 have made the experience directly relatable to Australians, with Australian characters and Australian settings. You can almost imagine yourself in the context of a date in places like Palm Beach or a popular Australian getaway like Thailand. 

BI is at play everywhere in life, including on our televisions.

Have you got any other pop culture examples? Post your suggestions in the comments section. 

Xian-Zhi Soon (Zhi) is a member of DPC’s Behavioural Insights Unit