Bracket Frenzy Moves Beyond College Basketball

March madness means NCAA brackets, along with brackets for practically everything else, from Star Wars characters to grooming products to public radio shows. What makes brackets so appealing?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's always interesting to see what's trending on Twitter. Last night, there were all sorts of tweeted opinions about President Obama's NCAA bracket, that he took the time to fill one out, what teams he picked.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Glad to see that he picked Indiana to win it all. Oh, the bracket drama. Now the thing about March Madness is that everyone is in on the bracket frenzy.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Even if you're not big into the basketball bracket thing, there are other things that (unintelligible) about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is MTV's Musical March Madness. We're newer band, will probably run a 15 seed...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Alabama, as you know, has a lot of barbecue restaurants. So which one is the best? The competition is in brackets...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...we're going to be doing (unintelligible) brackets this month.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We'll pit techniques and trends against each other.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Remember the nail. Colored different kinds of nail techniques.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Welcome to this is madness. You will be presented with matchups featuring heroes on the light side and quote/unquote "villains" on the dark side.

INSKEEP: OK. So this year there are brackets for "Star Wars," grooming products, rock bands, barbecue joints. Missing any?

MONTAGNE: As a matter of fact, yes. The U.S. Census just came out with a City Population bracket.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: There's a martini bracket.

INSKEEP: I wonder if New York is going to win again. Go on.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And the recent sweet 15 people bracket.

INSKEEP: How can I forget? This got us all wondering why the flowcharts that are brackets have become so popular.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: It's very clever. It keeps you engaged. You're actually becoming an active participant by making a series of choices.

INSKEEP: Barry Schwartz has spent a career studying the psychology of choice at Swarthmore College.

MONTAGNE: He's also a college basketball fan who has filled out some brackets of his own.

SCHWARTZ: In fact, the first time I did it for money, I actually won, and I thought I knew something. I never came close to winning again.

MONTAGNE: OK. He may not have had the secret to a winning bracket, but he can lend insight into why people love to fill them out.

INSKEEP: He says brackets impose structure on what's an otherwise pretty difficult choice.

SCHWARTZ: There are 68 teams. That's an incredibly hard thing to pick the one team out of 68. And if that were your task, you would just blow it off. But instead of that, what happens is I give you a whole bunch of pairs and all you have to say is which of each pair you like better, and that seems manageable. So you move your way through the tournament never having to make decisions between any set larger than two. It's an illusion, of course, you're still trying to pick the best of 68 teams, but it doesn't feel quite as impossible.

MONTAGNE: Oh, and one last example. Public radio station KPCC Here in Los Angeles, actually Pasadena, couldn't resist jumping into the fray. The station created an Interactive Public Radio bracket pitting shows against each other.

INSKEEP: And in the first round of bracket voting, MORNING EDITION took down SCIENCE FRIDAY. Now we're facing off against RADIO LAB. Listen, they are a great team over there. Not going to trash talk them. Krulwich, a great center; Abrumrad is amazing at guard. And we're just going to stick with our game plan, and we're going to play.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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