Saturday night’s Eurovision cheese-fest was painful to watch, but among the mass of mediocrity Jedward, the Irish twins, stood out for their tuneless singing and uncoordinated dance moves. So why did they get top points from the UK (and others)? And are they any clues as to why Azerbaijan won with such dire schmaltz?
The problem in the past has been blamed on the judges. They were seen as following narrow national interests and simply voting for their country’s friends and neighbours. To overcome this ‘diplomatic bias’, the voting system was changed a couple of years ago. Give the population of each country 50% of the vote and no longer would a small coterie of judges be able to put politics ahead of art.
Alas, the new system has not worked the way the organisers hoped. As The Guardian points out, voting patterns are much the same as they ever were, with the eastern bloc still largely voting for each other and Greece still voting for Cyprus and vice versa. So are we all motivated to behave like diplomats and back our neighbours in support of national interests, or might there be something else going on?
On Saturday night 25 songs were performed in quick succession over two hours. And in the UK at least, there was not even the small mercy of an ad break.
Behavioural economics suggests that when we are blitzed with information like this, we abandon reason and rely on ‘heuristics’ or metal shortcuts to make decisions; we can’t process the information in a rational way so we defer to our gut instincts.
“In making predictions and judgments under uncertainty, people… rely on a limited number of heuristics which sometimes yield reasonable judgments and sometimes lead to severe and systematic errors” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973)
But what shapes our gut instincts?
There are a range of factors but what we are familiar with is key. If we have heard a song before or the song sounds like something we have heard before then we are much more likely to latch on to it.
So perhaps it is not so much rational diplomacy but emotional familiarity that makes us vote for neighbouring countries in Eurovision.
Jedward’s familiarity to us in the UK (rather than a bias towards the Irish) is much more likely to explain why we voted for them. And we gave eight points to the people from Moldova who were a very familiar cross between Madness and the Monster Mash.
And what of Azerbaijan? Was there not something very familiar about their song Running Scared? The costumes seemed to come straight off an Abba set.
Outside Eurovision, familiarity also helps explain many of our purchasing decisions. It helps explain why, after Eurovision, with our cracking headaches, we reach for branded aspirin when unbranded versions are available for a fraction of the price.