Optimizing Surprise

What if the top-seeded teams in the NCAA basketball tournament played each other in the first round, leaving the lesser Davids to try to knock off the Goliath in later rounds? Would blackjack be more exciting if you couldn’t split or double down, or more predictable?

University of Chicago researchers found a way to calculate the elements of surprise and suspense in playoff games, gambling, scary movies, and other dramatic entertainment.

Drama, whether in a book, movie, or game, depends on outcomes that are unknown (suspense) or unexpected (a surprise). Add too many plot twists or playoff upsets, and they cease to be surprising. Or, as the researchers put it:

“To be thrilling, you must occasionally be boring.”

This key insight — that surprise must be scarce to pack a punch — inspired Alexander Frankel and Emir Kamenica of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, along with Northwestern University’s Jeffrey Ely. They realized that like any other scarce resource, the capacity to surprise can be modeled mathematically and optimized.

Solving the equation for optimal suspense, they could play with some entertaining “what ifs.”

For instance, changing the Final Four format to start with a match-up between top seeded teams would reduce surprise, suspense, and likely take some of the fun out of the games, according to findings they published in February’s Journal of Political Economy.

Movie producers have tested and refined their films with audience focus groups for years. More recently, entertainment providers like Netflix use sophisticated tracking and data analysis to understand how viewers respond to programming. And surely the “best-of” series playoff format in the national baseball, basketball, and hockey leagues is calculated not only to maximize revenue through multiple games, but also to build suspense that draws an audience.

However, the academic analysis of entertainment based on information theory is new, the authors write.

“Future work … should help us better understand why we are moved by certain sports, novels and games. This might help us design better entertainment. More important, it will lead us to better understand the human psyche.”

— Toni L. Shears

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