The Mathematics Of A Pricing Game


There was a new pricing game that debuted on The Price Is Right for the start of its 42nd season, with a name that’s designed to get my attention: it’s called “Do The Math”. This seems like a dangerous thing to challenge contestants to do since the evidence is that pricing games which depend on doing some arithmetic tend to be challenging (“Grocery Game”, “Bullseye”), or confusing (“The Check Game”), or outright disasters (“Add Em Up”). This one looks likely to be more successful, though.

The setup is this: The contestant is shown two prizes. In the first (and, so far, only) playing of the game this was a 3-D HDTV and a motorcycle. The names of those prizes are put on either side of a monitor made up to look like a green chalkboard. The difference in prize values is shown; in this case, it was $1160, and that’s drawn in the middle of the monitor in Schoolboard Extra-Large font. The contestant has to answer whether the price of the prize listed on the left (here, the 3-D HDTV) plus the cash ($1160) is the price of the prize on the right (the motorcycle), or whether the price of the prize on the left minus the cash is the price of the prize on the right. The contestant makes her or his guess and, if right, wins both prizes and the money.

There’s not really much mathematics involved here. The game is really just a two-prize version of “Most Expensive” (in which the contestant has to say which of three prizes and then it’s right there on the label). I think there’s maybe a bit of educational value in it, though, in that by representing the prices of the two prizes — which are fixed quantities, at least for the duration of taping, and may or may not be known to the contestant — with abstractions it might make people more comfortable with the mathematical use of symbols. x and all the other letters of the English (and Greek) alphabets get called into place to represent quantities that might be fixed, or might not be; and that might be known, or might be unknown; and that we might actually wish to know or might not really care about but need to reference somehow.

That conceptual leap often confuses people, as see any joke about how high school algebra teachers can’t come up with a consistent answer about what x is. This pricing game is a bit away from mathematics classes, but it might yet be a way people could see that the abstraction idea is not as abstract or complicated as they fear.

I suspect, getting away from my flimsy mathematics link, that this should be a successful pricing game, since it looks to be quick and probably not too difficult for players to get. I’m sorry the producers went with a computer monitor for the game’s props, rather than — say — having a model actually write plus or minus, or some other physical prop. Computer screens are boring television; real objects that move are interesting. There are some engagingly apocalyptic reviews of the season premiere over at golden-road.net, a great fan site for The Price Is Right.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

5 thoughts on “The Mathematics Of A Pricing Game”

  1. I have read an interesting book on our abilities to assess simple math – called The Science of Fear (as concerned with the assessment of risk and probabilities). I would not be surprised if the simple calculation involved in this show would make a difference. In this books psychological evidence was given that, for example, 3 of 100 ias perceived intuitively in a different way than 3% although we know these are the same.

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    1. I’m interested and glad to see that book’s in the library. I figure to borrow it next time I’m there.

      I’ve been fascinated informally with how framing a problem makes people more or less likely to solve it ever since long ago I noted that nobody in my family had any problem setting the VCR to record stuff, and someone else pointed out that we talked about “setting” the machine instead of “programming” it to record, the way most people did. Whether our general ability followed from thinking of it as an easy thing to do or vice-versa I couldn’t answer but the correlation interested me.

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      1. Thanks for sharing this anecdote. So probably if you consider ‘programming’ as something very interesting (as I do) you might intimidate readers by using such ‘geeky’ / ‘technical’ language although just wanted to share your enthusiasm. I will try to take that into account when writing about something abstract the next time.

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        1. I don’t actually know there’s a connection, but it does feel intuitively like there’s probably a link between terms that sound like jargon and people feeling they can’t follow it. I suppose that’s similar to the book-publishing lore that every equation cuts book sales in half. That lore seems far too pat to be literally true but it does seem qualitatively to be on to something.

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