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Why State Fair Games Mesmerize Us

The North Carolina State Fair wraps up this weekend, capping off its celebration of the 150 anniversary.

Attendance halfway through the fair was strong at close to 548,000, but would need a significant uptick through the weekend to break the record of nearly 1.1 million set in 2010. At the current pace, attendance would rank in the top five in history.

That said, there were other records broken this year. A 1,458.5-pound pumpkin grown by Elijah Meck of Randleman and a watermelon weighing 316 pounds grown by Todd Dawson of Garner took the top prizes in the Great Pumpkin and Watermelon Weigh-Off. Both entries topped the previous state records of 1,404 pounds for a pumpkin and 263 pounds for a watermelon, according to contest officials.

In addition, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler inducted five new members into the N.C. State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame this year.

People come to the fair a variety of reasons, not least of which is the treats (new food this year includes Cheerwine funnel cake and deep fried pumpkin pie).

For some, however, the midway games hold a sort of mesmerizing grip. People will shell out $5 bill after $5 bill to try and hit down the trio of milk cans.

Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said there is some psychology behind the attraction of these games. One reason is simply that people tend to behave differently given their environment.

"I think if you asked somebody on the street if they should engage in a game of chance, they are going to have a very different answer than if they are in a state fair," he said. "Because that's part of what you do at a state fair."

Also, people tend to overestimate their abilities at just about everything. "And so, if you ask people their chance of success in the basketball game, for example, they may over estimate it pretty dramatically," he said.

Finally, it's not even necessarily about the game or the prize. It's about doing something with your friends.

"Social settings are extraordinarily reinforcing, in part because they introduce a whole new set of rewards, like whether you do better than your friends, or whether you reinforce a group identity by playing the game in a social situation," he said.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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