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Identity may explain why Theo Fleury and Jamie Salé received more votes than 'The Russians,' Valeri Bure and Katia Gordeeva.

Insight Productions/CBC

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa



NHL players may be pretty talented on the blue line, but how long would they survive on figure skates?

Battle of the Blades finds out, pairing eight former NHL players with champion figure skaters.

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As it turns out, some hockey players are just great skaters. Even with toe picks, they can do mean backwards crossovers - and years of bench presses translate into thrilling one-armed lifts.

But no one is as good as Valeri Bure. As he and partner Katia Gordeeva effortlessly execute one technically demanding move after another the judges - like the audience - are left thinking "did you ever play hockey?"

So how did Val and Katia end up as one of the bottom two pairs, at risk of elimination in the "Monday night skate-off", twice in the first three weeks of the show?

Life isn't fair, and neither are reality TV shows. A 2009 study (freely available here) found that, when American Idol had more black viewers, black contestants were less likely to be voted off, especially in the later rounds, when there were fewer contestants. A similar pattern appears on the Israeli counterpart to American Idol, "A Star is Born." Contestants from large centers tend do better at the early and late stages of the contest, because people tend to vote for others from their home town.

The theory of identity explains why this happens. All of us have many identities: hockey dad or soccer mom, Vancouverite or Québécois, member of Leafs Nation or of Colbert Nation. Identities define the groups to which we belong. Research shows that - not always, but often - people are more generous towards, and more cooperative with, others belonging to their own group, even if group membership is arbitrarily determined.

Identity may explain why "The Russians," Val and Katia, received fewer votes than " Canada's couple," Theo Fleury and Jamie Salé. If Battle of the Blade's audience is Canadian, they will tend to be more generous to those identified as like them, that is, Canadian.

Yet - to some extent - we choose our identities. Val Bure has lived in North America as long as he has lived in Russia, and has an American wife and children. If the audience was reminded of him playing in Calgary and Montréal, instead of his Russianness, I believe he would receive more votes.

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Why write about figure skating game shows in a column devoted to economic issues?

A person's identity could influence real world hiring and firing decisions, as well as TV ones.



Follow Economy Lab on twitter @Economy_Lab

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