Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

Credit: Rory Sutherland

Oskar Morgenstern grew up in Vienna, John von Neumann in Budapest. Clearly the same Austro-Hungarian intellectual spirit which gave rise to Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele and their seminal joint work Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour is still alive in that part of the world, because the Austrians chose a bearded transvestite to represent them in the Eurovision song contest. Oskar and John would have been very proud.

If you want a really childish explanation of game theory, it is that when everyone else goes around shouting 'rock', a few smart people should start to shout 'paper'. And perhaps a few really smart and really brave people, figuring out this 'paper' strategy in advance, might even be emboldened to shout 'scissors'. In Eurovision this year, Poland shouted 'paper'; Austria shouted 'scissors'.

The cunning real trick here is that, if you want to win Eurovision, it is better to do something distinctive than to do something conventionally good. That is not to say that the distinctive cannot be good or even great (France Gall's and Serge Gainsbourg's 1965 winning song 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son' was booed in rehearsals simply for not being a standard ballad; 'Waterloo' was highly unusual at the time). But the fact is that, even if you miraculously produce a conventional song that is 10 per cent better than the 15 other conventional ballads you are competing against, that 10 per cent advantage is never enough to drown out all the noise created by regional voting blocs, national rivalries and so forth. Better to go all or nothing -- 'Monte Carlo or bust' -- in this case by fronting someone with the second most famous facial hair of any Austrian in history. That way you will either win spectacularly or lose spectacularly, but you won't end up coming fourth just because the bloody Scandies all voted for each other again. …

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