Bigg Boss: Television’s biggest social experiment?

Future contestants, brushing up on your game theory may be a good idea

Bigg Boss is a reality television show that has currently completed a run of eight seasons on Colors (Viacom), and is based on Endemol UK’s reality show Big Brother. In the show, several participants cohabit a house in which each of them must perform tasks and duties to avoid being voted out, all this under the watchful cameras of an omnipresent overseer—the Bigg Boss—and millions of viewers.

As the show unfolds, there is one aspect of the show that becomes clear: Bigg Boss is not so much a game show as it is a social experiment.

Typically, Bigg Boss participants come from diverse backgrounds—artists, sportspersons, politicians, assorted celebrities—but contestants are largely those already familiar with the cold, stolid stare of the camera lens. In fact, their behaviour on the show can be attributed to their specific public backgrounds, while still being largely generalizable to manners in which a common man may act.

However, even seasoned camera-ready celebrities could do with some useful reading before entering the house. After all, nobody likes to be evicted in the first week of the show on national television.

For a psychologist and an economist deeply interested in human behaviour, as these writers are, Bigg Boss offers a view into the strategic (and sometimes not-so-strategic) interaction between participants, and are illuminating from the perspective of social psychology and game theory.

This particular approach to popular culture is not new.

There has been some study of applying the game theory concept to reality television shows, but not yet to Bigg Boss. Using episodes from the somewhat similar game show Survivor, a study from 2002 found that there is an optimal size of alliance that will help achieve victory (but only for one player).

Given that the current season of Bigg Boss (Double Trouble, 2015) groups all contestants into pairs, team dynamics will be of great importance. While most research focuses on TV shows with instant cash prizes (Deal Or No Deal, The Weakest Link, among others), social psychology research, as far as such interactions are concerned, tends to focus on the role of gossip and displays of power.

Since Bigg Boss housemates typically encounter each other on a continual basis (until they are evicted), communication plays a crucial role in enabling victory for any player. It is likely that most communication takes place only through gossip in Bigg Boss.

In past seasons, we have seen that most conflicts between housemates arise out of judgement-based conversations between other players. Every week, housemates vote to decide which housemate is to be evicted from the Bigg Boss house, a task that requires coordination and clear communication to pull off.

What if housemates aren’t well-coordinated and can’t be trusted? One of the key dynamics that may be influencing housemate behaviour is attributed to a constant conflict between self-interest and other-regarding behaviour.

Contestants face the dilemma of basing their actions purely to prolong their own survival on the show (which increases their chances of winning) or to ensure that no rival is worse off because of their actions (which may involve being altruistic).

Therefore, there is a trade-off between cooperating with others (to save oneself from being evicted) and ensuring that no one else gains from such cooperation (to ensure that non-cooperators are evicted as soon as possible).

While these should ideally be the broad goals for any player in the Bigg Boss house (and, we dare say, in broader life), we see that there are some players who enter the house with a pacifist attitude, therefore refusing to be drawn into fights and gossip. Meanwhile, there are almost always a few players who are keen to disrupt the balance in the house, thereby creating distrust and animosity within the house.

Each player will ideally want to avoid being voted out of the show, and win the season and the large cash prize associated with victory. They can achieve this either by being aggressive and dominating over other players, or by being cooperative and passive towards other players.

While there are some players who do not enter Bigg Boss for monetary benefits, they certainly enter seeking publicity for their activities outside of the house (an actor for their movies, or a TV star to gain entry into Bollywood).

Readers familiar with common models in game theory will see that this set-up is similar to the Hawk-Dove game (or Chicken). The basis for such games rides greatly on cooperative and coordinating behaviour.

In the classic Hawk-Dove game, two teams fight for a particular resource, which is beneficial to both. Think of it as two animals fighting for a piece of food. The animal/team that plays aggressively is termed as the Hawk and the team that plays passively is the Dove.

Now, if both teams turn out to be aggressive, both lose the resource. But if one is aggressive and the other passive, the aggressive player benefits more. Theory predicts that the best solution is to alternate between playing Hawk and Dove (since each player would ideally like to do the opposite of what the other player does).

Let us look at one instance of such a Hawk-Dove game from Season 7 of Bigg Boss.

In the Toy Factory Task (Days 79 and 80) in Season 7, Bigg Boss divided the players into two teams. Team A consisted of Sofia (captain), Kushal, Aijaaz and Kamya. Team B consisted of Armaan (captain), Tanisha, Sangram and Andy. Gauhar was the managing director (a supervising authority) of the Toy Factory.

Both teams had to make 25 stuffed toys within a time-frame and with a certain set of rules. At any given time, there had to be at least two workers from each team working in the factory.

The respective captains could mutually decide whether to reject all of the opposing team’s toys, accept some or completely accept all toys. A team could take a unilateral decision in isolation from the other, but since communication between teams was allowed, cooperation appeared optimal relative to conflict. The captains decided to jointly evaluate the toys, based on agreed rules.

Considering both the teams, these writers consider Armaan’s team as the Dove and Sofia’s team the Hawk in the initial two rounds. This assumption is not in the context of personality types (i.e., who is predisposed to being aggressive or passive), but rather in terms of strategies used (i.e., on the basis of actions taken during the game): cooperative (Dove) and non-cooperative (Hawk).

We propose several motivations for this choice of strategies.

Given that Armaan’s team was constantly reminded of the opposite team’s dominance (via repeated insults and/or cheap talk), adopting an aggressive approach to the problem may be optimal.

Another possible reason could be that they observed Gauhar (who was tasked with a neutral role) to be biased towards Sofia’s team (since a previous alliance between Kushal and Gauhar had been established over the course of the season) and thus decided to not cooperate at all. This turns them into a Hawk team as well.

As the managing director, we assume Gauhar’s role was to ensure maximum production from both the teams, which would result in the socially optimal outcome of both teams gaining but neither one losing.

From the generic Hawk-Dove game, we see that the social optimum is achieved only when both teams cooperate and play as Doves. Perhaps Gauhar’s role was to ensure that both teams cooperate meaningfully and emerge as Doves. Instead, they both turned out as Hawks.

However, since Bigg Boss rules dictate that a winner must be declared with certainty, one team had to emerge the winner. Armaan’s team does so because of their efforts, and Sofia’s team loses despite playing Hawk all along.

We have seen how Bigg Boss can be far more than your daily dose of late-night entertainment—from intricate communication dynamics to social behaviour that belies the situation in the house. What becomes immediately clear from this discussion is that often players do not realize what they are signing up for when they enter the Bigg Boss house. There are two reactions to this: quit and actively seek eviction, or stay on and find ways to be the last housemate standing.

For future contestants of Bigg Boss, we leave you with what everyone will give you before you start: free advice. First, frame your gossip and communication with other players such that it ensures your survival in the game (see Thornborrow and Morris, 2004)—being mindful of who you talk trash about (and to) could make or break your stint.

Second, game theory predicts that the ideal strategy is to play as both Hawk and Dove in equal measure, particularly when you have been nominated. Brushing up on your game theory may not be such a bad idea; refer to gametheory.net for more readings.

American economist and war strategist Thomas Schelling’s seminal book, The Strategy of Conflict, may be good bedside reading as well.

Last, if all else fails, accentuating your strongest character traits may get the audience on your side. If not for anything, identifying your potential trope before you enter the house (the drama queen/the jock) will give you a good idea of how to play to your strengths.

Remember, entertaining the audience is a sure-shot strategy to take you far in Bigg Boss.

Hansika Kapoor and Anirudh Tagat are research authors at the departments of psychology and economics, respectively, at Monk Prayogshala.

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