Is That Your Final Answer? Quiz Shows and Intelligence, by James Adams

With its new primetime quiz show, ABC asks viewers "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and American audiences have responded with a resounding "Me! Me! Me!" In fact, ABC was so confident that the show would be a success, they left the question mark off the end of the title. They were right, and now, thanks to FOX, CBS, and NBC throwing their hats into the ring, primetime television is littered with quiz shows.

Amidst this resurgence in quiz show popularity, the film "Magnolia" from Paul Thomas Anderson, the maker of "Boogie Nights," has opened in theaters around the country. The film follows the paths of a dozen troubled characters that all have some connection with a fictional television quiz show, What Do Kids Know? Some, like Stanley, the young whiz kid contestant whose genius is being exploited by his father, are intimately involved with the show. Others come close to it only by chance, like Jim the good-hearted cop who falls for the estranged daughter of the show's aging host. It is, in fact, chance that appears to drive the characters as they struggle with the desperate randomness that directs their lives, their stories spiraling nearer and nearer each other, beyond their control, guided only by what seems to be one coincidence after another.

In stark contrast to the seeming randomness of life events stands the structure of the quiz show, with it's carefully laid out set and its collection of well defined questions and answers. Ring the buzzer and answer the question. You're either right or wrong. Every question has an answer, and there are no gray areas. Nothing is left to chance.

Every day life is full of ambiguities. Questions like, "Who should I vote for? What do I believe in?" and "What should I do with my life once this television show is over?" have no easy answers. Even the question, "What will I have for dinner?" can lead to the depths of despair, given the right circumstances. Unlike "Who wants to be a millionaire," all these questions end with a big "?". Perhaps the new popularity of the quiz show can, at least in part, be explained by a need to find definite answers. Questions like "Who invented the lightbulb? A. Einstein, B. Edison, C. Watt, or D. Elvis?" are, after all, strangely reassuring.

One of the characters in "Magnolia" exemplifies the tension between the chaos of the real world and the determinate nature of the quiz show. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a former star of the long-running "What Do Kids Know?" is all grown up now. No longer faced with the factual questions the show offered, his life is crumbling as he searches for meaning in work and love. "I used to be really smart," he says, remembering his days on the show, "but now I'm just stupid."

If the deeper psychological need for certitude plays a role in the popular resurgence of the television quiz show, one shouldn't overlook the simple human characteristic of competitiveness. There is a strong appeal to the "I'm smarter than you," factor that every audience member gets to invoke each time they know the answer when a competitor blunders a question. This would not be an uncommon occurrence--a degree in rocket science is far from a requirement to be a contestant on any of the new shows.

If one wanted to take a sunny view of the quiz show phenomenon, one could argue that television viewers are eager for an opportunity to engage their intellectual abilities. Although the questions asked on the new quiz shows may not always be that challenging or thought-provoking, surely they do provide more of an intellectual challenge than the average sit-com. A viewer who actively participates in the game, challenging himself or herself to answer the questions as quickly as possible is engaging some of the most basic mechanisms of human intelligence.

The experts don't agree on the exact nature of intelligence, but many believe it can be divided into (at least) two categories: fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is involved with on the spot problem solving, mental flexibility, and the speed of processing new information. How fast can you come up with the answer? It's one of the standard requirements of the quiz show to be able to answer as quickly as possible, although a few, like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," allow contestants a bit more leisure while pondering their responses.

In fact, some intelligence researchers believe that fluid intelligence is directly related to the speed of neural processing-how fast the brain can receive a signal and respond. If this is true, then fluid intelligence can be measured by a simple test, such as measuring how fast a person can respond to a stimulus, let's say by pushing a button when a light comes on. Sound familiar? It seems that many quiz shows have been testing fluid intelligence for years, by requiring contestants to be the fastest to ring a buzzer after hearing the question.

Of course, a speedy buzzer finger only gets you part way there. You still have to know the answer. That's where another type of intelligence comes into play. Crystallized intelligence, as the name implies, is more fixed and memory-based. It depends on education and experience and represents a person's accumulated knowledge, including things like facts and vocabulary. Once the buzzer's rung, the memories that are part of crystallized intelligence need to be retrieved quickly (speed, an aspect of fluid intelligence, is involved again).

One Website run by a Jeopardy! fan suggests that the Jeopardy! Seniors Tournament was created because older players reaction times were slower than the younger players. The older players knowledge base was just as strong, but because of slower reaction time, they couldn't compete with younger players at the buzzer. This is consistent with the concepts of fluid intelligence, which relies on reaction time and tends to decrease with age. Crystallized intelligence on the other hand remains relatively intact, even into old age.

It's possible that the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament was developed for the converse reason. The young players have fast reaction times, but their crystallized intelligence may not hold as many facts as that of the older players.

The Seniors Tournament was retired in the 1996-97 season, but the Teen Tournament is still in production.

All this talk of intelligence is not meant to give television quiz shows too much credit. If you're after intellectual stimulation, you'd be better off reading a book, learning a new language or musical instrument, or by playing some brain games that are specifically designed to challenge your mental processing. Still, if you find yourself in front of the television, why not put on your thinking cap and actively challenge your brain?