It's got to make you wonder. Why are so many people tuning in to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the show that has triggered the prime-time quiz show craze?
Without a doubt, there's some high drama and sweaty palms. It's a thrill to watch contestants risk their fortune as they confront Regis, ready to slay the next multiple-choice dragon en route to the $1,000,000 prize.
But those moments of heart-stopping excitement are pretty sparse. With so many simple, throwaway questions, a good chunk of the show is just plain boring. What's the allure?THE VIEWER FEELS SMART
I asked a loyal fan to tell me what she loves about the show. Her forthright answer confirmed my personal theory. People love the show because it makes them feel smart. We sit on the couch and answer all the questions while watching the shmo on TV sweat it out.
That's why "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has taken off, leaving "Jeopardy!" and poor Alex Trebek in the not-ready-for-prime-time-TV dust.
Watching "Jeopardy!" always reminded me how little I know about so many things. Could you answer a series of questions on 19th century poets with great confidence? Without the know-it-all best friend waiting by the phone to help you out?
The questions are designed to make any high school drop out feel like a genius.
The questions on "Millionaire" on the other hand are designed to make any high school drop out feel like a genius.
Test yourself against the winner.
John Carpenter won one million dollars (!) for answering the following question:
The earth is approximately how many miles away from the sun?
a. 9.3 million
b. 39 million
c. 93 million
d. 193 million
Even though you may not be sure, most people learn the answer in fourth grade. [It's 93 million. But I bet you knew that.]THE HIGH OF FEELING SMART
We like to feel smart. After a hard, frustrating day at the office with co-workers and superiors who don't fully appreciate your inner brilliance and intelligence, it's nice to come home, flip on the tube and feel like a million bucks.
It's an easy way to give ourselves that extra boost of self-respect. "Hey, I'm a somebody. I got all the answers right, and if it was me on the show instead of that jerk, I'd be coming home a millionaire!"
"Honor drives the heart of man more than all of the desires in the world."(Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in The Path of the Just)
Of course, the enticement is far more subliminal. But that gentle ego stroke is there, egging the viewer on, feeding slender portions of esteem to a hungry inner self.
Do we really increase our sense of worth by answering a series of useless trivia questions?Hardly. That extra helping of self-respect is just a bunch of empty calories.NOT SO HARMLESS
The payoff from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is not completely harmless because the illusory effect of self-esteem can spread to more significant areas of our life.
Many intelligent, well-meaning people neglect their significant relationships in order to make it to the top of the corporate ladder. They're after something greater than money. Something even greater than love. For many, financial success seems to fulfill the primal human need for self-respect.
We all need to be able to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, "Yes - I'm a somebody!" As president of the company, with a beautiful house, family and BMW in tow, now you can tell yourself, "I've made it."
It's this kind of success that Western society worships. But achieving it creates a false sense of self-respect, because it stems from an external source. When the external source telling you that you are good evaporates, what happens to you?
Our craving for respect can even lead to murder. Read the words of a ruthless mobster, who killed his best friend in cold blood, explaining why he joined the Mafia:
"It's the greatest thing that a human being could experience. The flavor is so good. The high is so natural. When you sneeze, 15 handkerchiefs come out. I mean, wherever you go, people can't do enough for you ... If you walk into a restaurant, they'll chase the person out of the best table and put you there. There's just so much glamour, respect and money ... It's unbelievable. You're with the elite. You feel that you're so superior and that you're chosen ... I know in my heart that I would do it all again. I'm talking from the heart. So how could I say I'm sorry? If I say I'm sorry, who am I kidding? I did it, and I loved it." (TIME, June 24, 1991)
It's easy to confuse looking good with being good. Here's an unrepentant murderer who wakes up in the morning feeling great about himself!
It's easy to confuse looking good with being good.
Sure people can use their money and their stardom to do wonderful things that are worthy of true honor. But success doesn't make us good. Only by embodying real values and striving for moral perfection do we become genuinely good.
Real self-respect is internal, independent from what anyone thinks of us.
I'm going back to "Jeopardy!" and those zinger questions. Since I don't need a show to feel smart, I might as well use one to become smart.