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Spring 2008 - Deal

Destination Purdue > Spring 2008 - Deal

Project shows senior how to 'Deal'

By Jill Williams

When you hear the phrase "agricultural research", you might think of people in white lab coats conducting experiments on plants or soils. But when Purdue senior Tom Adler hears that phrase, he tunes to a different channel.

Tom Adler poses

Photo by Jill Williams

Tom Adler, a senior agricultural economics major from Atlanta, Ind., poses next to a television featuring Howie Mandel, host of the game show Deal or No Deal. Adler is studying the economic concept of risk aversion by recording the behaviors of the show’s contestants.

Last year, Adler, an agricultural economics major from Atlanta, Ind., began studying contestants on the television game show Deal or No Dealas part of his honors project. He records every decision contestants make during the show and determines what they are willing to risk for the chance of winning $1 million. During each Deal or No Deal game, a contestant picks one of 26 cases, each worth a certain amount of money. Then, the contestant selects other cases. At certain points, the show's "banker" will offer the contestants a deal. The contestant can take the deal and go home, or try to open a more valuable case.

After each deal decision, Adler records the amount of money on the line. He also studies the contestants' interactions with their family members and the internal conflicts they have about what they should do during the series of deal decisions. Adler records all the data and information in a spreadsheet to analyze later. With two contestants per episode, there are several opportunities to collect data between each deal offered by the show's banker.

While collecting data seems time-consuming, Adler has help from his advisor, Christine Wilson, an associate professor of agricultural economics. Wilson came up with the idea for analyzing and interpreting Deal or No Deal. "I began watching [the show] and thought that it would be a fun research project," she said.

Adler was a student in Wilson's honors class when he began brainstorming potential ideas for his project. When Wilson brought up the TV show, Adler knew that was the project for him.


Throughout his analysis, Adler incorporated the skills he learned in his classes, but the experience also taught him that there is more to agricultural economics than he could learn in a classroom. For example, he said he has learned a lot about risk aversion, the level of dislike people have for taking risks. Risk aversion is an important concept in economics. It helps explain why people buy certain stocks or even why they will purchase a particular cell phone contract over another.

Although fascinating, the project came with a few drawbacks, Adler said. Sometimes, when he should be working, he gets so involved in the action that he forgets to record contestants' decisions. After 20 minutes of watching the show, he realizes his mistake. "Dang! I'm supposed to be recording this!" he said. When that happens, he has to rewind the episode and start again. Adler said he has a number of other distractions: 26 to be exact. The 26 models who hold and open the money cases on the show hold Adler’s attention, but haven’t forced him to rewind episodes too often.

Most of Adler's research has supported the idea that people are careful and logical when it comes to taking risks, but there have been a few people who were not. One contestant quickly eliminated many of the high dollar amounts he could win, but kept going because he said all he wanted to do with the money was throw a big party. Even when it was obvious that he should "take the deal," he kept going, said Adler. The contestant wound up leaving with a penny, the smallest prize a contestant can win.

"Eventually, our research might help us determine what is driving people to make these irrational decisions," he said. "That's what we hope." While there are rare cases of people who chose to risk it all, Adler's research has produced data comparable to similar game show studies, which tells him that he is on the right track. He is looking forward to finding out if race, gender or age influence a person's aversion to risk.

When the project is complete, Adler and Wilson hope to have their work published in an academic journal. Such publication is an honor for any undergraduate student.

So, is Adler ready to be a Deal or No Deal contestant? "I personally do not plan on trying to get on the show, although I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to win a million [dollars] if someone gave me that shot," he said.