Susan Boyle: Revealing institutional settings

Like pretty much everyone I enjoyed the performance of Susan Boyle on Britain’s got talent.  I love Les Miserables and she did a great performance of an incredibly difficult song from the show.

However, what stirred me up the most was the behaviour of the crowd and judges.  Both were very dismissive to start with – undoubtably a product of the format of the social situation they were in.  Unlike many commentators, I do not believe that the crowd and judges were strictly representative of “most” of reality.

We could argue that this type of social situation represented an extremely concentrated version of reality – so that the implicit biases and signals used in society were amplified, and therefore easier to spot.  If this is the case, the dismissive nature of the crowd illustrates something quite uncomfortable about all of us.

But I disgress – following the judgments, once Miss Boyle illustrated her talent the behaviour of the crowd changed, and changed remarkably.

In many ways the crowd (and the female judge) massively overcompenstated for their poor judgments when they were wrong.

Now call me cynical – but this is the bit I found the most uncomfortable.  Once people realised that Miss Boyle was a winner they “jumped on the bandwagon”.  If anything they got in the way of her performance by loadly exclaiming “I like it too!!”.

The judges then carried on with this rubbish by mentioning that she was being laughed at during the discussion of her performance – instead of focusing on the fact that she had done a bloody good job of a damned hard song.

The pathetic reaction by the crowd and the judges illustrated a fundamental part of the issue – that people are trying to maximise their utility subject to an amazingly fluid institutional surrounding and our understanding of this social change and its impact on social welfare is weak.

What are you blabbing about?

It is true that Miss Boyle’s performance illustrated two facets of human nature that make us a bit uncomfortable:

  1. we are too quick to judge people instead of investing to reveal information (as the social benefit of doing so is greater than the private benefit),
  2. we tend to over-signal our involvement in the “popular” equilibrium – as there are positive spillovers.

Now, each individual is a choice maker – but a set of individuals in a group establishes the payoffs that the individual gets from their choice.

In such a situation, small signals (such as someone’s looks) can quickly be used by a group to create an institution that excludes such people – even if the equilibrium where this person is excluded is pareto inferior (or simply worse for everyone than a situation which includes them).

Furthermore, it took a strong shock by her to change the eqm.  This idea is summed up by this quote:

I dread to think of how Susan would have left the stage if her voice had been less than exceptional. She would have been humiliated in front of 11 million viewers.

Even if she was good – the crowd had turned against her.  She had to do more, just because the institutional environment was “over-using” the effectiveness of the signal.


Susan Boyle illustrated such a case so clearly, and so starkely, that it makes us all feel uncomfortable – but even more importantly, it makes us all think about how we treat other people.

Ultimately, it is not government’s which define whether societies co-operate and solve prisoner’s dilemas (although they can sometimes help) – it is the experiences, expectations, and beliefs of societies (and in some sense the individuals understanding of their own preferences).

Economics does not understand how these experiences, expectations, and beliefs are formed – and as a result we do not understand institutional settings.  THIS IS OUR MAIN FAULT. [Although I would note that no-one has convinced me that anyone actually has a good grip on these issues]

However, even from my limited knowledge I feel able to conclude that events such as this lead to overall better outcomes.  Quite a gift from someone so roundly scoffed at her before the performance!

30 replies
  1. Owld Grumbleton
    Owld Grumbleton says:

    Oh please! It was a set -up from the start. You don’t seriously believe that Simon Cowell et al didn’t know what was coming? Cowell controls every aspect of the show. An ugly woman with an amazing voice, Boyle was specifically chosen to create exactly the media kerfuffle we’re now seeing. Trying to attribute anything other than venal audience manipulation to the situation is both naive and crass.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Owld Grumbleton

    Owld, it doesn’t matter if it was a set up by the judges or not – we can still infer behaviour from the reaction of the crowd, which is what this post does.

    Now if the CROWD was also in on it – that would be a different story.

  3. Owld Grumbleton
    Owld Grumbleton says:

    Oh I agree. What I’m saying is that Cowell did it all knowing what we’d think, and knowing that Boyd could pull it off, thereby exposing our prejudices and triggering our guilt. Does it give us any new insights? No. We already know that people make judgements based on appearance – a learned behaviour because appearance is sometimes a useful indicator, albeit a fallible one.

  4. jafabrit
    jafabrit says:

    I guess I must be one of the few people who wasn’t surprised, maybe because I grew up with women like that in the Northeast of England. She is typical of so many women I knew, who had character, were self effacing and full of talents. Set up or not I am delighted she busted the stereotypes and reminded people not to judge a book by the cover.

  5. Jean shor
    Jean shor says:

    Owld Grumbleton is exactly right. These people audition before getting on the show. You are naive to think what you saw was not understood well in advance and carefully planned and manipulated. They had such a great ‘reversal’ reaction with Paul Potts (not to mention worldwide press) that they knew they could do it again with this woman.
    As to the question of whether the audience was ‘in on it’, it’s immaterial (though I feel sure they were coached to some degree before the woman came on). Look at the video again. There is exactly one (1) dismissive reaction shot from the audience before Boyle started singing, edited together with multiple extremely condescending faces pulled by the judges (who remember, knew exactly what to expect as a result of the audition, so the disdain they showed was sheer acting). Then the female judge made that little (obviously carefully prepared) speech about how they had ALL misjudged her, and wasn’t this a wake-up call! — again, wanting you to wrap the elaborate, orchestrated reactions of the judges up with the single audience reaction shot in your mind.

    Which you did! Congratulations to them on a successful manipulation.

    Obviously most people will NOT expect someone who looks like Susan Boyle (and purveys her life story — never been kissed?) to open up with such an amazing voice, but once she showed up at the audition with those two disparate elements in place, the ‘packaging’ of her appearance was set, and millions of people are talking over their coffee this morning about judging people by their looks, just the way you are, just the way the show’s producers intended.

  6. lori hilliard
    lori hilliard says:

    Beauty comes from within. So often people are judged too quickly, and without a chance to be know. Susan Boyle is a good roll model for inner beauty. She has a gift that cannot be judged, and a outer beauty as well.

  7. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Jean shor

    Hi Jean Shor,

    I just need to check whether you actually read my post. You see, for what I was saying it DOESN’T matter if the judges knew – as it was the reaction of the crowd I was discussing.

    Now, there were a couple of quite dismissive shots (the girl and some old women), someone wolf whistling, and you could hear the laughing in the background – really, even if it was the minority of the crowd they had no tact. It only behaved like this because of the signaling, and its magnified impact in a group setting. That is what I was discussing.

    If you don’t think the crowd was rude, then I think we have different value judgments surrounding this issue – and we should just leave it here.

  8. Earl Mardle
    Earl Mardle says:

    I agree that the judges, or at least Simon Cowell, had a pretty good idea of what was coming.

    But equally, it doesn’t matter, the crowd behaviour is the most interesting issue. While you are right about the latter part of the piece where everyone was climbing on board the demonstration, I think you are wrong about the early phase.

    She was only two bars into it and most of the audience knew that their prejudgements were wrong. From there it was just momentum building in the same way that any mass audience reaction is stirred and controlled.

    The fact that it was such a difficult song was also part of it, in the same way that an Olympic gymnast sets expectations by the degree of difficulty they choose. Those who achieve the move at all get credit, but those who flick it off their shoulder get adulation.

    I also think you underestimate the emotional power of a human voice in peak performance; had she been a juggler or dancer or sword swallower, the access to the talent is much more intellectual and difficult, but song exists because it uses resources that are completely unfair in that they bypass a whole lot of cognitive and conscious gatekeepers.

    Those gatekeepers were in full operation around her looks and awkward socialisation, but the voice would have cut through the prejudice anywhere, in any setting.

    What it also speaks to is our willingness to reject talent of all kinds. A favoured few are allowed to monopolise the top of the curve for reasons outside their exercise of their talent, while people equally or more talented in every field, are suppressed. (and no, I’m happy where I am doing what I do, thanks)

    Her voice has not suddenly got better, she has spent a lifetime developing her talent and yet she was unemployed and a failure for 47 years.

    This speaks even more loudly to the normal waste of human resources and the processes by which that waste is managed.

  9. Jill Job
    Jill Job says:

    It is so true that looks are only skin deep. Looks don’t make us good people or who we are. They are only the most basic part of us (but we all get judged on them). We should all remember that we can loose our looks in a split second in an accident or through illness. What is most important is our heart and soul. Susan obviously has both and is beautiful in her own right. I admire her and wish her all the best. Thanks to people like her we can all learn some very valuable lessons.

  10. lynne
    lynne says:

    What a load of psycho-babble tosh – and incidentally, starkly does not have an e and governments didn’t need an apostrophe. You may have the gift of the gab but your grammar and spelling are crap. I would sooner spend time with the “pathetic” audience and judges than with someone like you who is so far up his/her own backside that they need a miner’s lamp to find their way out.

  11. catapostrophe
    catapostrophe says:

    @Owld Grumbleton
    I agree. The soaring musical accompaniment was unusually grand, as was the sweeping cinematography during her performance. At the end of the day, it’s simply an insult to her. “You’re ugly. You sing well. Let’s make some television.”

    I’m disgusted with the coverage of this. Is it really that amazing that someone who doesn’t match the Western capitalist stereotype of beauty has a nice voice? Is it really okay for almost every article written about her to unabashedly agree that she is “homely”?

    There’s no silver lining here. She’d be better off going back to singing for her cats instead of hanging around for her tour of the condescending talk show hosts of the world.

  12. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Earl Mardle

    Hi Earl,

    That is a fair point of view.

    I would say there are three sections if I had to split it up. The section before she sung, when she started, and once the crowd jumped on her/ when they were judging her.

    In this sense I agree that her music had power – I absolutely love that song, and to be honest I thought she did a great version of a very difficult song.

    However, even given that I felt some people went overboard in the end – and in the first section I felt that the crowd was unreasonable. Ultimately there may have been a feeling of moderation somewhere in the middle, but sadly I didn’t find it.

    Thanks for your commentry though

  13. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Jill Job

    I agree with that, there are defintely issues with signally – which was the purpose of this post (given that this is a solely economic focused blog 🙂 )

  14. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Hi Lynne,

    Indeed I have grammatic erros on the blog, however if the tone of my post insulted you I’m sorry. I respect the song sung by Susan – I think that her version was beautiful – and if my discussion of it came off as arrogant that is fully my own fault and I’m sorry.

    However, the discussion of what happened here is something that I find very interesting – and in my own mind I find my post intersting. It was not my intention to sound like a tosser though – so if it comes off that way I’m sorry.

    It is just a very intense, and illustrative lesson for me and the sort of research I do – hence why I posted this.

  15. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:



    I fully understand what you are saying here – I found the standing up and commmentry by the judges quiet insulting. After her performance (to an INCREDIBLY difficult song) I felt she deserved better!

  16. alf
    alf says:

    I thought the entire point of a show like Britain’s Got Talent (or A.I.) was to ridicule the (socially, artistically, aesthetically) inept. It’s a circus. It’s a Theatre of Cruelty. If Simon didn’t smirk he’d not be on TV.

    Talent is incidental. Of course there are people who can sing etc. Of course hardly anybody looks great without makeup. Why should it make the news? Why do we continue to believe that only self-appointed, self-interested judges can tell us what talent is?

    Mind you, Susan has pluck, and she doesn’t give that much store about what people think of her; nor does she seem to be particularly interested in her own opinion of others. She kept her humor, humility and poise, and got on with it. THAT’s her real talent, and that’s what is truly rare these days.

    It shouldn’t have mattered whether or not she could sing well. But I am glad she did.

    On the other hand, I have the same unease with this phenomenon as I did with Slumdog Millionaire. The smarmy show-hosts hold the cards, always get away with it, and even prosper from the outcome.

  17. What would Hayek say
    What would Hayek say says:

    Looking at this from a market perspective, you could say that the crowd experienced a “black swan” moment, where a rare event (actual talent) differed from there historic analysis which they naively assumed meant only blonde, young women are “winners”. So all in all a good leasson that past performance is not necessarily a predictor of current performance. Now next week we can expect something entirely different.

  18. marj
    marj says:

    @Jean shor
    This was the audition. The show hasn’t started yet. Susan Boyle applied to be on X Factor but pulled out when she realised that appearance counted for much of the acceptance for that show. The woman’s a gem.

  19. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    @Earl Mardle
    Susan was NOT a failure and unemployed for 47 years!! Woteva gave you that idea……if you do your research, you will find that, as the youngest child of a family of 9 children, she remained at home to look after her elderly parents, who both reach their nineties, and only recently, passed on, thus freeing susan, to live a life of her own….she is an angel!!!!! Not too many young people and not so young people nowadays would make that sacrifice….we are all so selfish and self-centered now!!!

  20. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Well the people with the endowment of resources always have more following trade – as they are in the position of power. It is the way of the world

  21. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @What would Hayek say

    Indeed that is true.

    I do enjoy taking a step back and looking at the general movement of opinions within the crowd – and how that impacted on individual decisions. It is in this sense that this example enlightens methinks

  22. Margs
    Margs says:

    We may create all sorts of scenarios about this event. Albeit towards the judges and the audience.
    I personally am focused on the woman herself and revere her name for the courage, confidence and talent which she shares with the world.
    It matters not her disability, because in one way shape or form we ALL have disabilities. I applaud her that she had the courage, the innocence like a child, the beauty within, the confidence to know she would WOW the audience and she did.
    Can you imagine if there were more people in this world who exhibit Godly qualities that contribute to make this a better habitat to live – for this I salute Susan Boyle and I say God blessed this woman with a wonderful gift and she has duplicated that blessing by giving it away.

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