The Great British Baking Show

Just what is it about The Great British Baking Show? (or The Great British Bake-Off as it's called in its homeland.)

In case you haven't heard of this program, it's exactly what it sounds like. It's a baking competition. The contestants are British. To me, it sounded boring at first. But it's oddly compelling. Why though? Even if you aren't particularly interested in baking, there's something about this show.

One of the things people often remark on about the show is that the contestants are so nice to each other. Unlike many other reality competition shows where the producers seem to try to foment drama among the contestants, the bakers on the The Great British Baking Show seem to genuinely get along and like each other.

One of the most interesting ways this niceness manifests itself is that the contestants will help each other. You'll often see contestants who are ahead with their bakes helping to apply icing to cookies or extract tricky cakes from their baking tins. At first this doesn't seem to make sense. Why would you help someone you're competing against? Their loss is your gain. This is well above and beyond the requirements of fairness, right?

I think it comes down to the fact that there's no real prize at stake.[^1] The winner of The Great British Baking Show gets...named the winner of The Great British Baking Show. That's it. No island vacation. No new car. No million dollars (or pounds, as it were). This lack of a prize helps encourage the friendliness of the competition in two ways.

First, it removes at least part of the incentive to win at the cost of being a jerk. If there were a million dollars at stake, you could be a jerk and win, and hey if everyone thinks you're a jerk, so what? You've still got your million dollars. Many people who might not be jerks otherwise would do it with a sufficient reward at stake. The reward of simply being named the winner isn't, in and of itself, enough to motivate most people to be a jerk.

Secondly, since the only real prize at stake is the pride of winning, it would be somewhat diminished if it only came about because someone else suffered some misfortune. The only thing you're definitely going to get out of this is being named the best baker, so you wouldn't want an asterisk next to your name in the record book, as it were. You wouldn't want people to say "Sure, Contestant A won, but Contestant B would have won if only they got icing on the last three cooking" or somesuch. To that end, it makes sense to help your competitors to an extent, because you would want your best efforts to be judged against their best efforts. You wouldn't want to win only because someone better had some bad luck.

It's always interesting how incentives shape behavior. The Great British Baking Show seems to have hit upon a recipe for sportsmanship that most other competition shows have missed.

[^1] Technically, there is no prize. Although several contestants have gone on to have presumably lucrative endorsement deals and other opportunities. Importantly, it's not necessary to win to get these deals. Simply doing well and being likeable is often enough.