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Financial Lessons from "Let's Make a Deal"

It's hard to imagine randomly receiving $2,000 -- with no strings attached -- and be anything other than happy. But watching "Let's Make a Deal" the other day showed me the opposite may be true.

 I was warming up on a treadmill at the gym one morning and "Let's Make a Deal" was on one of the big screens. I probably hadn't seen the 56-year-old show since I was a kid and stayed home from school because I was sick. (The TV was black and white.) On the show, people dress in outlandish costumes, hoping to be chosen by the host to participate in a game that offers the possibility of a big prize.

In one game, a woman's task was to pick tokens out of a box with numbers on them. If the numbers added up to a certain total, she won a car. But if she picked a token saying "Zero," the game ended immediately and she got nothing. The participant picked well and moved closer to winning the car. The host continued to offer her more money to stop the game and give up the opportunity to win the car.

With one "good" token needed to win the car, the host offered the participant $2,000 to walk away. After a moment's thought, she took the sure money. Good for her. She could easily have picked a "bad" token and received nothing. But wait! This is purportedly an entertainment show. The participant couldn't get off that easy. The host had her pick another token to see what would have happened had she continued the game. She did and, of course, picked a token that would have earned her the car.

I wondered whether the participant was happy because she won $2,000 or did she have regrets for not sticking it out and winning the car. It depends on the participant's perspective, which easily could have changed within minutes.

At first, she went to the show just hoping to be picked. She was likely thrilled to be chosen and to be on television. At that point, winning $2,000 would have brought nothing but pure joy. But as the game progressed and she inched closer to a car, it's quite possible that her perspective changed. Maybe $2,000 seemed like a letdown.

Perspectives can change when you bring hindsight and regret into the mix. Picking the winning token after she bowed out may have left the participant more upset than glad. She may have even said to herself: "I knew I should have kept playing."

In the real world, where we live our financial lives, you never know for sure about certain decisions. Hindsight is seductive. Regret is an easy emotion to embrace. Nothing, however, is clear when you enter into it; nor is it obviously clarified when you look back. Sometimes you have to make an effort to realize when you've won even if something better was a possibility.

Words of Wisdom

I watch about six hours of TV a day. Seven if there's something good on. --Bart Simpson