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The Psychology of Playing State Fair Games

15August 2021

When I was seven, I won a goldfish by somehow tossing a Ping-Pong ball into a teeny bowl at a rural county fair. And, in a miracle second only to me winning in the first place, the fish lived until the next year’s carnival. I was hooked. And while I don’t go broke trying to win a polyester Tweety Bird every year at the State Fair, I still love to toss a few darts at half-filled balloons even though I haven’t hit a midway jackpot since that goldfish. 

Which raises the question: Even though we know we probably won’t win, what makes us play these games in the first place? To find out, I asked the most State Fair–obsessed experts I could find: Greg and Bridget Robinson-Riegler. They’re both psychology professors, Greg at St. Thomas and Bridget at Augsburg. The couple agreed to wander through the Midway with me on a sunny Tuesday during the 2019 State Fair, teaching me just what was going through people’s minds. 

People aren’t thinking rationally on the Midway. Before we even step into the fray, the Robinson-Rieglers explain that two major types of reasoning guide our decisions: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, automatic thinking—it’s what humans rely on most of the time, since our brains process more information than we’re consciously aware of. System 2 is slow, deliberate, and rational. It helps us make bigger, more thoughtful decisions.

“This whole Midway is for System 1,” Greg says, gesturing around to the pulsing lights, neon colors, and nostalgia-inducing Pokémon toys.

“It’s cognitively lazy—you don’t think more than you have to here,” Bridget adds. “Everything’s distracting; it’s sensory overload.”

We’re terrible at assessing risk. “People generally aren’t good calculators, and they don’t have all of the information necessary to make calculations even if they could do it well,” Greg says. “So, they rely on shortcuts.”

People overestimate their ability, Greg explains—on the Midway, they think their chances of winning are higher than they actually may be. He points to a study on the illusion of control, in which researchers gave subjects money to bet on games. “In a dice-roll game, people bet more money if they rolled the dice than if the experimenter rolled,” he says. “When you do it, you have control. But we way overestimate that degree of control.”

Game owners and managers know what they’re doing. “These people know how people work,” Bridget says, nodding to a game host watching someone try and fail to win a giant stuffed bear. “They may not know the terms, but they’re using cognitive psychology.”

Greg adds that social psychology may be even more important than cognitive in Midway games. “They’re trying to connect with the person and their competitiveness, trying to persuade them that they can totally win and that they were so close last time,” he says—it’s all psych, and it affects how people approach the games (and how often they win or lose).

Ticket deals aren’t a magnanimous gift. “The tickets are key,” Greg says, pointing to a white ticket booth. “People don’t see them as money. It’s the sunk cost effect. We feel so invested in what we’re attempting, and we feel like all that previous effort and cost is ‘wasted’—and for it to not be wasted, we have to win.”

Bridget adds that the requirement to purchase tickets, rather than pay cash for each game, increases the commitment—you feel like you need to spend all your tickets.

“And the ticket booths are everywhere,” she says. “Never more than 50 feet away!”

It is possible to set limits. Just because Midway-goers’ brains are primed for a total System 1 takeover doesn’t mean they’re locked into an impulse-laden free-for-all. “System 2 could be encouraged to come ‘back online’ by a friend or family member who tethers you to reality and says, ‘You know you just spent $40 trying to win Scooby Doo, right?’” Greg says. “That might make the person ‘think’ more. Also, set a limit—give yourself one or two sheets of tickets, and swear, ‘That’s it.’”

It’s OK to play the games—even if you know you might lose. Even pros like the Robinson-Rieglers let themselves toss a few rings. “Even though I know I won’t win, this is still making me want to play,” Bridget says as we wind through the Midway. “We still have an animal we won here. To be honest, it’s ugly, but it feeds a nostalgic memory and makes me think of the fair.”

“I rationalize it as part of the fair,” Greg agrees. “Even if I lose, I say, ‘Well, you have to play some games at the fair—it’s fun!’ This is an example of cognitive dissonance, when your attitudes—It’s stupid to waste money—don’t align with your behavior—I just spent $60 trying to win my daughter a Peppa Pig. One way to relieve that is to change your attitude: My daughter loved that I tried; it was fun. You have to try!”

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