Protecting the Joneses: 'The Weakest Link' Is Also the Farthest Away

How physical proximity may influence our treatment of others -- even in limited interactions.

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Nobody likes being the weakest link. But, it turns out, nor do people enjoy being near the weakest link.

In research conducted by British psychologists at the University of Lincoln, players on the BBC game show "The Weakest Link" were statistically far less likely to vote against the person standing to either side of them compared to players positioned across the stage. The study lends support to a proximity theory of human relations that suggests we're hardwired to support those closest to us -- literally.

With the help of a few psychology undergraduates, Lincoln senior lecturer Paul Goddard analyzed 72 episodes of the TV quiz show in which players vote the weakest team members off the set.

When one player consistently hinders the team by answering quiz questions incorrectly, the case for collectively booting that contestant becomes pretty clear. But when the situation is more ambiguous, deciding who the worst player is becomes a matter of subjective judgment -- and that's what Goddard wanted to study more closely.

Under conditions in which they couldn't reach consensus over whom to eject, players went out of their way not to vote their immediate neighbors off the show. The less obvious the bad egg, the more reluctant the players were to finger the people beside them -- a pattern Goddard calls "neighbor-avoidance effect."

"In these circumstances," Goddard said, "contestants have to rely on a secondary source of information -- their own judgement. This is where bias can really come to the fore."

The study recalls research famously conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who demonstrated that people's inhibitions against doling out punishment tend to fall when compelled to do so by an outside authority. Milgram also found that subjects were more willing to administer punishment when the victim was held in a separate room.

Goddard's findings -- presented at a conference of the Society for the Advancement of Behavioral Economics -- reveal more about the link between proximity and decision-making without the messy ethical issues that are associated with Milgram's tests. In a way, the game-show setting was the perfect way to capture information about people's behavior: it was a controlled environment where contestants had to make a choice, but how they did it was up to them. And it so happened that people reacted to the same situation with remarkable consistency.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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