In France, the Sun Revolves Around the Earth

From Sway, by Ori and Rom Brafman:

Lips puckered, Henri looked like he had just swallowed a spoonful of spoiled crème brûlée. He kept blinking, as if he could wish away the foul taste in his mouth. In the background, the music grew increasingly ominous. Against all odds, he was selected from among thousands of hopefuls to be a participate in Qui veut gagner des millions, the French version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Henri had done well on the first few questions, but everything changed when the host asked him, “Qu’est-ce qui gravite autour de la terre?” – that is, what revolves around the earth?

Henri looked down in concentration as the answer choices were read aloud: (A) the Moon, (B) the Sun, (C) Mars, and (D) Venus. Henri reread the question out loud and mulled the choices over in his head. As the ominous music continued to play, he bit his lip. Needing all the help he could get, Henri decided to invoke his “ask the audience” lifeline. You’d think that Henri was smart to poll the audience. After all, even if some people get the answer wrong, in the aggregate the audience is usually right. As the audience voted, the camera focused on Henri’s girlfriend, looking utterly bewildered as to why her boyfriend couldn’t come up with the right answer by himself.

When the audience’s answers were revealed, Henri took a deep breath, and swallowed hard: so much was on the line – he had to get this question right to stay in the game. As you might expect, no one in the audience voted for Venus. For whatever reason though, 2 percent voted for Mars. And then came the strange part. “If you allow me,” said the host, “it is perhaps my opinion, but the result is quite divided.” Only 42 percent of the audience voted for the right answer, the moon. A full 56 percent voted for the Sun revolving around the Earth.

Henri was dumbfounded, and at this point, we might ask whether something is horribly wrong with the French educational system. But it wasn’t ignorance that the audience was exhibiting. It was an adherence to the rules of fairness that swayed the French audience. Did Henri, who didn’t know basic astronomy, really deserve a million euros? To the French audience, the answer was a resounding no. They deliberately chose the wrong answer because it didn’t seem fair to them for Henri to progress in the game with their help when he couldn’t even answer such an easy question.

Ori and Rom go on to say that if Henri had changed his name to Henry and competed in front of an American audience, things might have turned out differently. American audiences are almost certain to help out a contestant, regardless of his apparent abilities; data shows that the “ask the audience” lifeline results in the correct answer more than 90 percent of the time.

In Russia, however, the audiences there often give the wrong answer – and not just to confused souls like Henri. They deliberately misled both smart and less smart contestants alike. In fact, Russian audiences were so likely to give the wrong answer that contestants learned to be wary of the “ask the audience” lifeline.

“Americans regard it as justified if someone becomes rich. Now in Russia, the oligarchs – a select group of entrepreneurs who found a way to make quick money after the Soviet collapse – all achieved their wealth by means which were of dubious regard at best. That’s the first thing that Russians resent. And secondly I think they resent the very fact that these people have become so much richer than everyone else.”

From this perspective, it is clear that the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire audiences in Russia see contestants as trying to get rich on the backs of the audience members –and why should they contribute to such unfair behavior?

Yours in fairness,



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