If you want a really childish explanation of game theory, it is that when everyone else goes around shouting ‘rock’, a few smart people should start to shout ‘paper’. And perhaps a few really smart and really ave people, figuring out this ‘paper’ strategy in advance, might even be emboldened to shout ‘scissors’. In Eurovision this year, Poland shouted ‘paper’; Austria shouted ‘scissors’.

The cunning real trick here is that, if you want to win Eurovision, it is better to do something distinctive than to do something conventionally good. That is not to say that the distinctive cannot be good or even great (France Gall’s and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1965 winning song ‘Poupe de cire, poupe de son’ was booed in rehearsals simply for not being a standard ballad; ‘Waterloo’ was highly unusual at the time). But the fact is that, even if you miraculously produce a conventional song that is 10 per cent better than the 15 other conventional ballads you are competing against, that 10 per cent advantage is never enough to drown out all the noise created by regional voting blocs, national rivalries and so forth. Better to go all or nothing — ‘Monte Carlo or bust’ — in this case by fronting someone with the second most famous facial hair of any Austrian in history. That way you will either win spectacularly or lose spectacularly, but you won’t end up coming fourth just because the bloody Scandies all voted for each other again.

The reason more people don’t try this is simple. It takes courage. When you fail conventionally you get sympathy; when you fail unconventionally you get blamed. It’s a behavioural bias known as defensive decision-making, and it affects almost everything.

When making any choice, our first instinct is not to choose the ‘best’ answer but the answer which minimises the harm we personally can suffer in the worst-case outcome. (‘Minimax’ is what John von Neumann calls this). Let’s say I have the deciding vote on Austria’s entry to Eurovision: if I pick some boring but worthy schlager and it loses, I keep my job. If I choose a drag artist with a beard and she loses, then the finger-pointing begins.

Philip Hensher

We owe Constant Lambert (1905-1951) a huge amount, and the flashes of illiance that survive from his short life only suggest the energy with which he established the possibilities for… Readmore