Trivia Pursuit

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

Let’s get the humble-bragging out of the way first: I’ve always had a remarkable memory. [1] I’m not sure if it’s photographic or “eidetic” (which apparently is the official-ish scientific term)—I’ve never had the experience of seeing an entire page of text in my mind’s eye and then literally reading it off, for example. It’s more like all the words are in my head, similar to a regular memory but much more detailed, and I can simply retrieve them. The range of things I can remember this way is selective: it doesn’t work for everything, and I need to concentrate (in other words, care) in order to be able to do it. But my powers of recall under certain circumstances are sideshow-level freaky. I’ve always been obnoxiously proud of this ability, which is ridiculous when you think about it—having unusual powers of recall is no different from being tall or color-blind or right-handed. And yet for some reason most people (myself included) are fascinated by this so-called “skill.”

A number of years ago, when I was still teaching at UBC, I saw an ad on a campus billboard for subjects for a memory experiment, and I jumped at the chance to show off. The experiment was a day-long affair: subjects would first have an MRI done of their brains, then do a bunch of memory tests, be given lunch, and then come back for more tests. I was interested in getting the MRI as well as the opportunity to showboat: as a semi-professional hypochondriac, I’m always happy to undergo free tests that will reassure me I don’t have a life-threatening tumor.

The MRI part took a long time, was loud, and induced moderately uncomfortable claustrophobia. By the time it was over I was relieved to repair to the lab room and start the fun part. The tests were all perfectly suited for my weird-ass skills: study a picture for 15 seconds, then see it again a few seconds later and indicate which elements have been changed. Hear a list of pairs of words and then repeat back the second word in each pair. Child’s play. The tester was a grad student in the psychology department, and as the morning wore on she clearly became more and more intrigued by my responses. I’m sure the experimenters are not supposed to indicate to the subjects about how they’re doing, but she was obviously excited and started making little clucking noises under her breath as I blew her tests out of the water.

Eventually there was a question which consisted of hearing a page-long story and then repeating back as much of it as I could. I was supposed to hear it three times and each time say what I remembered—the idea, presumably, was that I would recall more of it each time. After the first time I repeated back the entire story word-for-word, and that is what finally broke my grad-student tester. “Um, okay,” she muttered. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now, since you repeated it perfectly the first time. I guess we’ll just do it two more times?” So we did. Then she went to fetch the professor in charge of the experiment. “I’m just going to bring in my supervisor here. He needs to see this.” The two of them observed me for the rest of the morning, openly fascinated looks on their faces.

Finally it was time for lunch, which consisted of a voucher for a sandwich in the cafeteria next door. The only kind the voucher would cover was egg salad. I am not making this up. I vividly remember sitting at a table alone with a plastic tray before me, picking limp lettuce off the rubbery innards of my promised meal, head pounding. It’s weirdly energy-intensive to concentrate that hard for that long, and I was exhausted and starving. The sandwich and the half-hour break were not enough replenishment after such a demanding travail—not that that’s any excuse for what happened next.

I returned to the testing room at the appointed time, where both the student and her professor were already waiting for me. It would be an exaggeration to say that the supervisor rubbed his hands in anticipation, but they were definitely excited to get going on the second half of the day’s tests. Which were all, I immediately learned, about spatial reasoning. “Oh. But I thought this was a memory experiment?” I asked somewhat querulously. It is, they replied—but the spatial reasoning tests are an experimental control. I glanced around quickly for an easy exit, but the researchers were sitting between me and the door and the only window clearly didn’t open. Besides, my dignity. I sighed and settled deeper into my chair.

All the tests for the next couple hours involved arranging colored plastic shapes to form a larger shape represented on a card placed in front of me. Within a time limit. The first test consisted of two equilateral triangles that I quickly placed next to each other to form the square indicated on the card, a puzzle that would bore an adolescent octopus. I believe I also solved the second problem, although not as quickly or easily as the first. After I failed the third, fourth, and fifth tests, I began listlessly pushing the plastic shapes around in front of me after each new prompt, waiting for the buzzer to put me out of my misery. I was like one of those poor dogs in the learned helplessness experiments, shocked repeatedly into a state of lethargic despair. The worst part was the palpable confusion, then disappointment, of my researchers. I was not a savant after all, just a middle-aged professor lady with a weird ability to recall highly specific kinds of information in great detail under very narrow circumstances, and spatial-relations skills so stunted they are tantamount to a disability. So much for using me to win the war on terror.

I relate this story at length—all recalled from memory, mind you—because I am fascinated by the pride most people (including me) take in their ability to remember random information. (I am so eager to let you know how good I am at rote recall that I am also willing to let you know how bad I am at finding my way from the doctor’s office back to the waiting room.) Entire industries have sprung up—game shows, board games, trivia contests—capitalizing on people’s desire to display the dusty ephemera wedged in their craniums. We are a nation of Victorian curio-collectors-cum-carnival-barkers, and the wares are the contents of our own brains.

I suspect that most people are proud of their ability to spout the names of African capitals and periodic-table abbreviations because they conflate memory with intelligence. And fair enough—there is definitely some overlap between whatever the hell is measured by intelligence tests and memory skills. But hopefully by now we all know that whatever the hell is measured by intelligence tests is shaped and even determined by one’s socioeconomic class, ethnic background, race, mental health, and perhaps even gender—which is to say that the tests that measure whatever the hell is measured by the tests are designed to favor privileged white dudes. So-called “intelligence” is just a made-up thing that we “test” in order to keep the system rigged. But that is exactly why, I think, trivia contests and other showy displays of mnemonic ability are so satisfying: they democratize exhibitions of intellectual prowess and disentangle it from education and class status. We suspect, rightly or wrongly, that a good memory indicates a kind of native intelligence that can be abstracted from fancy-pants book learning; we enjoy seeing displays of wit, cunning, and anamnesis from night janitors and cab drivers who use their smarts to stick it to the man. (Of course, the eventual reward for such underdog heroes is getting to join the ranks of the assholes who had been keeping them down.) The plot of Slumdog Millionaire, for example, hinges on just such a device: no one believes that a desperately poor trivia-contest winner could have retained so much random knowledge, but he proves that the ability to retrieve the name of the third Musketeer transcends class and national boundaries.[2]

Television (and radio) game shows such as the one depicted in Slumdog Millionaire stoke our collective fantasies that our society is fundamentally a meritocracy.[3] Following along with memory savants as they tear through opponents on a multi-week run on Jeopardy! is much more satisfying than watching ordinary shlubs compete for living room sets on shows (like Wheel of Fortune sorrynotsorry) that require only a basic knowledge of pop culture and a pulse. It’s the same paradox upon which the entire teetering edifice of American society is built: we put up with grotesquely unfair social conditions because we fantasize that we will be one of the special ones that hits the jackpot and makes it big—and even better if our reward is due to an inherent personal quality that finally gets us the recognition we deserve. In order to tolerate life in an inequitable system, you have to believe not only that the system rewards those who are “better,” but also that you yourself are better in some way.[4] It’s just a matter of time before Alex Trebek recognizes your unique talents and makes all your dreams come true.

If we’re honest with ourselves, those of us who love board games and trivia nights will admit that they offer an opportunity to play out this grand social psychodrama on a miniature stage. If you are of a certain age and from a certain area of the world, your desire to show off your store of indiscriminate facts (and thereby prove your unsuspected brilliance) was likely sparked by the board game Trivial Pursuit. At least two generations’ worth of family life have been scarred by this supposedly wholesome entertainment, which pits sister against brother, mother against son, and friend against friend in a fierce battle to prove who has retained more NBA point-scoring statistics and film noir protagonist names than their opponents. Of course we all understand, as we flip over the playing board[5] and stalk off in high dudgeon, that it’s “just a game”—but because the questions are testing our memories, losing feels much more personal, like a referendum on our intelligence, worth, or even selfhood. Even being told we’re wrong about a random factoid we had always held true can sting. We can all see ourselves in George Costanza when he stubbornly insists that a Trivial Pursuit card misprint—“Moops” for “Moors”—disqualifies an overbearing opponent from winning the game. Or maybe we see ourselves in the opponent.

While I have no hard proof and have conducted no exhaustive research, I suspect that the rise of trivia contests in American bars and restaurants is due directly to the enormous popularity of Trivial Pursuit and its many, many spin-offs.[6] Of course I am freaking obsessed with bar trivia contests, and dragoon my loved ones into forming teams with me whenever I get a chance. For years my spouse and I have been attending a weekly trivia contest with our friends L. and D. whenever we visit my family in North Carolina. As a foursome we are formidable competitors (we almost always come in first, second, or third) because our expertise covers a broad range of topics and—let’s face it—our favorite weekly contest heavily favors Gen Xers and Boomers. Tragedy recently struck when our regular quizmasters, a married couple, quit to have a baby (How dare they?) and were replaced by a young woman with irritating upspeak who works for a regional chain of trivia contest runners. Suddenly our collective store of miscellaneous information is no longer a perfect fit for the game, and our brilliance has been revealed, with an ignominious poof, as a dustheap of useless informational bric-a-brac.

But as deeply disturbing as this new state of affairs may be, our greatest psychological challenge as trivia competitors actually came last summer, under the ancien régime. Our erstwhile quizmasters’ game had one unusual feature: the last round of the night was a Final Jeopardy-style question where teams had to bet all or part of the points they had painstakingly accrued up to that point. Of course the poetasters and dilletantes in any trivia crowd like this sort of nonsense, because it can reverse the fortunes of a mediocre team and reward them handsomely for a lucky guess at the last minute. We hated it.

One memorable night, the final question (it is burned in my brain forever) was “Who did Billboard rank the number one female recording artist of all time?” We had been well ahead on points all evening, but had bet it all on this question so had to get it right to win. Back and forth we debated between Cher and Barbra Streisand, and then finally ended up listening to a particularly vehement member of our party (who shall remain nameless) and went with Cher. The answer, of course, was Barbra Streisand. The very next week we were in the exact same position—leading comfortably all night, bet it all on the final question—and the query was “What famous performer appeared on Broadway only twice, in the 1960s, and was nominated for a Tony Award both times?” My immediate thought was, well, Barbra Streisand. I was nearly 100% certain it was her. And yet—what diabolically insane, vicious, inhuman trivia masters would so such a thing? Obviously the answer can’t be Barbra Streisand again, two weeks in a row. Obviously it must be, I don’t know—Julie Andrews? Dear Reader, let us pass over the rest of this torturous narrative in pained silence. The following week we named our team “The Not Barbra Streisands” in protest, but it was a weak and insignificant gesture. It turns out that people who need people are indeed the luckiest people in the world, because people who need to win trivia contests are setting themselves up for a lifetime of pointless suffering.

The special pain of the Streisand Fiasco was that it reminded us, once again, that trivia games are just that—games. There is a component of luck involved. They’re not always fair. Sometimes the good guys don’t win. They are not a frictionless referendum on who is the smartest or the most prepared or even who has the best memory. And even if they were—so what? Your memory will not save you. There’s a good chance your personhood will even outlast it, and in the end your beloveds will need to rediscover who you are beyond your stash of stored facts and stories. There is an answer to this last, greatest trivia question—Who are we if we are not our memories?—but you’re going to have to bet it all to find out the answer. It’s just possible that it’s “Barbra Streisand.”

[1] It’s possible that what follows is just “regular” bragging—it will definitely seem that way at first, until you get to the dramatic post-lunch turn in my story.

[2] Sort of.

[3] Spoiler alert: it’s not.

[4] Which must be the reason that the great quiz show scandal of the 1950s—in which it was revealed that contestants had been fed answers in advance—was such a cataclysmic disappointment to so many. If game shows are just “entertainment,” then why would it matter if they were rigged?

[5] The little plastic pie wedges can fly an extraordinary distance and are the perfect size and shape to: 1. nestle deep into the shag carpeting of 1980s basement rec rooms and 2. cause painful instep damage days, weeks, or months later.

[6] Pub quizzes in the U.K. have a somewhat longer history stretching back to the 1970s, and are an outgrowth of centuries-old games of skill like skittles, darts, and quoits traditionally played in public houses.