So why are we so obsessed with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
Aside from the chance to boost your bank account by a million bucks, British psychologists believe that there's a secret to the success of TV's "Millionaire," which dominates North American prime time and is now seen in more than 70 countries. They say it lies in -- brace yourself -- its similarities to legendary roles and narratives like those found in ancient mythology and children's fairy tales.
Their study in the October issue of The Psychologist suggests that America's most popular game show taps into the appeal of narrative "quest" structures found in such stories as "Jack and the Beanstalk" and the Greek legend of Odysseus.
"I'm not a quiz buff. I'm not a quiz nerd," says lead author Martin Roiser, a senior lecturer in psychology at Thames Valley University in London. "My own abilities at quizzes is distinctly average. But what struck me as being very original about 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' [was] that they discussed the questions. There's none of that in ordinary quiz shows."
He notes that on shows like "The Price is Right," audience members are encouraged to shout suggestions, while on the British quiz show "University Challenge" teams confer in whispers before giving their answers. However, contestants on "Millionaire" are encouraged to talk out their reasoning, "phone a friend," or poll the studio audience for assistance.
He points out, however, that contestants who seek assistance run the risk of receiving "false help" from the audience. In this case, the study compares the audience to the Sirens who tempted Odysseus with their sweet songs.
"Then I saw the ladder of 15 rungs, and that struck me as immensely interesting," says Roiser. "You're climbing up this ladder. It's 'Jack and the Beanstalk.' It's the ancient hero set a series of increasingly difficult tasks."
Perhaps most importantly, he adds, the show uses average people as contestants. "'Millionaire's' a quiz show for ordinary people. If they're not looking for cleverness, what are they looking for? They're kind of looking for bravery. They're looking for courage."
According to the study, the contestant assumes the role of a hero on a quest, accompanied by "the guide of souls." That would be Philbin, the host.
Roiser says that although the host's personal style dominates the game, he is merely a conduit for the questions and doesn't assume a godlike position over the contestants. "He's not God because he doesn't really control the process," says Roiser. "He doesn't control time."
Instead, Roiser compares Philbin to a messenger of the gods.
"It's the only quiz show where the quizmaster is actually trying to help," says Roiser. "He's not there as just an impartial adjudicator. Of course, he doesn't tell them anything, but he's on your side. He's kind of accompanying you in this risky journey."
Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, says that the paper is strongly influenced by Carl Jung's theory of common symbols and images that resonate with humans. These symbols include good, evil, mothers and heroes.
"What they've done is essentially take that show and plug in various kinds of images and symbols that [psychologists Joseph] Campbell and Jung have found to be universal," says Fischoff.
But he says the paper merely offers this interpretation, and doesn't suggest that this is the correct analysis.
"Millionaire" taps into those symbols "only if you believe in those themes," he says. He suggests that theoreticians like these British researchers look at movies, music lyrics or plays and subconsciously view them from a certain psychological perspective -- Jungian, in this case.
"It really is a question of it being kind of like an inkblot that somebody projects their own thoughts onto," says Fischoff. "I don't believe that the creators of the 'Millionaire' show had Jung [or] the analytic archetypal perspectives in mind."
He says that "Millionaire" evolved because producers learned from previous quiz shows that audience involvement and the "hot seat" concept produce high drama. "These are things that are time-honored in terms of their suspense value," says Fischoff.
Fischoff adds that most contestants don't want to be on the show because they want to fulfill an archetypal hero role. "They just want to get the money and run," he says. "There's nothing heroic about it. It's banal."
And Fischoff calls the idea of Regis Philbin as a messenger of the gods "nonsense."
Roiser admits that this may be overanalyzing a pop culture phenomenon. "Maybe we're reading too much into it," he says. "I think that the popular response to what we have to say will help decide on that one."
The producers of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" did not respond to an interview request regarding the British study.
What To Do
This FindArticles.com reprint discusses the popularity of "Millionaire."
If you think you're ready for the hot seat, visit the "Millionaire" Web site.