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The Wheel of Fortune Effect
What would you do if you won the lottery? You have probably heard this question, or something similar, on many occasions. Most people think the answer is easy - they would buy a boat or a house or an expensive car - but to be truthful, there is no answer because it hasn’t happened.
Theoretical questions have always given me trouble. My answers are either purposefully and ridiculously outlandish or they’re simple things like “I dunno, I guess it would have to happen for me to find out”.
It kind of seems like the easy way out of a question I don’t want to answer or like I wasn’t paying attention, but it’s the truth. The cold, hard truth. And, It’s the beginnings of the Wheel of Fortune Effect.
(Disclaimer: this scientific “theory” is not actually scientific and to be honest there was no research put into this because it’s just things I’ve noticed and paid attention to.)
The origin of this theory, or the name of it at least, is simple. When watching “America’s Game” Wheel of Fortune at home on your couch, it’s easy to guess the puzzles (most of the time), and you might even get frustrated sometimes because “She keeps buying vowels! WHY is she still buying vowels? The answer is RIGHT THERE!”. Believe me, I’ve been there too. But, put yourself in the shoes of the contestants. If you were standing there, Vanna White’s sparkly dress blinding you almost as much as Pat Sajak's smile, you too would forget every word in the English language except for “I’d like to buy a vowel”.
It’s human nature to freeze up in the most important moments of your life. Whether that’s saying “Uhhh” too many times trying to order food or almost failing your driver's test because the lady from the DMV scared you into forgetting which pedal is gas and which is brakes. But, as watchers on the sidelines, it’s easy to get mad at other people for messing up something so simple.
Take scary movies, for instance. Most people like to yell at their screen when the protagonist trips and falls or calls out “Who’s there” like it’ll make a difference. To us, it’s common sense, but to them it’s I-Might-Be-About-To-Die sense.
One of my favorite scary movies is Wes Craven’s “Scream” from 1996 just for that reason. Aside from that, it’s wickedly comical and Skeet Ulrich is a dreamboat, but it also likes to point out everything that scary movies do wrong. Sydney, the main character, pointed out stereotypical scary movie tropes that make them unbearable to watch, and Randy even set up a series of rules on how to survive a horror movie, making it seem like this one will be different than all the others. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
In this case, however, it’s a good thing that “Scream” falls into all the categories of a typical slasher flick. For one thing, it perfectly captures the Wheel of Fortune Effect by putting everyday people in a horror movie. There’s no whacky “Fantasy Island” type setting or supernatural powers or even an unrealistic killer. They’re just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friends. The fact that they’re well-versed on scary movies makes the characters perfect because they know all the stupid things to not do. But, to the demise of the hopeful audience, they do them anyway.
To Casey and Steve, Principal Himbry, Tatum and all the others that met their fate at the hands of Ghostface, they were fighting for their lives. They were doing the logical thing, which because we’ve seen scary movies, we know is the wrong thing.
If Ghostface called you right now, what would you do? You would threaten to call the cops and he would tell you not to hang up. On our side of the screen, who cares what the psycho killer says? HANG UP AND DIAL 911! But, we, as the audience, are not being hunted by a psycho, are we? Casey, wonderfully played by Drew Barrymore, not hanging up the phone is the “Scream” version of “I’d like to buy a vowel”. She knows what letter is behind the panel. She knows the answer to the puzzle. She knows she’s going to be killed by the guy on the other end of the line.
The Wheel of Fortune Effect isn’t limited to 40 year old game shows or scary movies. It’s any theoretical situation that makes you freeze. Stop in the middle of what you’re doing and think “What do I do?”. Sometimes, you’re the live studio audience in Stage 11 of Sony Pictures Studios. Sometimes, you’re Pat Sajak, asking a simple question to someone that doesn’t know what’s going on. And sometimes, although you hate to admit it, you’re the seemingly average person that’s just trying to win their family a couple grand, and you just can’t think right. I like to call this person the “victim”.
There are multiple endings for the victim of this Effect, some better than others. There are three main ways it could play out. First, you run out of vowels and the puzzle only has one or two tiles left unsolved, and excitedly you shout “I’d like to solve the puzzle!” and Pat Sajak is so excited that you stopped calling out letters and that the wheel stopped clicking for a few extra seconds. This is ideal, but not always the case. Second, you run out of vowels and there are too many blank letters to confidently say the answer, so you call out a consonant. You get it right a time or two or you just get it wrong, and your turn is over and the next guy jumps right in and takes the puzzle for himself, shaming you and your whole family. This would be the player’s worst nightmare. And third, and most unlikely of the three, you name your last few vowels and maybe a consonant or two and then there’s no more letter tiles for Vanna White to run around and click and you’ve won the puzzle. Again, not as likely.
These “endings” of the effect are applicable to multiple scenarios. Let’s go back to “Scream”. When Randy was left on the couch watching “Halloween”, Ghostface came up behind him, ready to strike. But instead of killing him like any normal psycho would, he doesn’t and he goes for Kenny in the news van instead. This would be most like ending three for Randy- he didn’t really do anything noble or exciting, but he still won, in a manner of speaking.
For Sydney or even Gale, the ending would be the first one. They worked hard and fought Billy and Stu and survived, making tough decisions and using the utmost caution along the way, making it worthy of celebration and excitement. Sydney’s “I’d like to solve the puzzle” was calling the cops (finally) and putting an end to Ghostface’s revenge plot.
But the second, and most disappointing ending, would be Casey in the very beginning or Tatum in the garage. They fought and ran and screamed for help, but in the end, they guessed the wrong letter and lost the puzzle. Even if we secretly hoped they would make it.
Now, I understand that comparing Wheel of Fortune to “Scream” is maybe a stretch, but to me, it’s almost reassuring to know that a daily game show can check off boxes in real life and cheesy ‘90s slasher movies.
So, everytime you make a decision in the real world, you can anticipate the outcome- good, bad, or neutral. You can also know that, somewhere out there, someone is yelling at you to chose differently, thinking their outsider knowledge would really be useful to you in a moment like that. Even if your choices aren’t as detrimental as “Hang up and call the police? Or keep talking to the guy that’s trying to kill me?”, there’s always the difference between the right choice and the logical choice.
The right choice would be the outsider’s perspective. It’s obvious to them because they don’t have the weight of the consequences that may hinder their thought process. It would be yelling out the answer to the puzzle from your couch. Getting it wrong won’t penalize you or cost you $13K. The logical choice would be the person affected by said choice. Yelling out the wrong answer could cost them college tuition or a family vacation. They have to be careful.
Most decisions you make will never be like a decision on Wheel of Fortune or “Scream” or anything you see on TV. Most of the outcomes won’t determine your future or even the rest of your day, but there is always a Right choice and a Logical choice.
Winning the lottery doesn’t happen for everybody, but people think they know what happens when it does. Their statement to buy a house or a boat or an expensive car would be the Right choice. However, the lucky winner won’t know the Logical choice until they hold that Golden Ticket in their hands. More often than not, the Logical choice is “I guess it would have to happen for me to find out.”