Now for the final round – fingers on buzzers!

Perfect match: “Grandmaster” Wang (left) crushed by “Scowler” Blackwell (right), last night.

Do quiz shows really test intelligence? We love watching them and trying to beat contestants to the right answer – but experts say there is much more to winning than being a mere brain box.

At 8:30 last night, millions of people sat down eagerly in front of their TVs to watch the final of University Challenge. Would Imperial College London beat Corpus Christi College, Cambridge? How would Brandon “the Scowler” Blackwell, star of Imperial’s team, fare against Corpus Christi’s ace answerer, Ian “Grandmaster” Wang?

And would anyone remember the capital of Uzbekistan?

Quiz shows have been a staple of TV schedules for decades: University Challenge dates back to 1962. The sight of eager contestants under pressure – increased, in many cases, by enormous prize money – is inherently dramatic.

As well as the shows themselves, the formula has inspired novels, plays, films, and TV dramas – most recently, ITV’s Quiz about a case of alleged cheating on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Personalities are an important part of it: Blackwell comes across as brash; Wang as over-enthusiastic. And quizzes can be great levellers – a team that is brilliant at science might lose to one that is strong on sport. In 1980, London taxi driver Fred Housego shot to fame when he replaced a history professor as Mastermind champion.

Part of the attraction is that viewers can also feel incredibly clever if they get an answer before the contestants. The TV shows have encouraged all kinds of other competitions – from board games, such as Trivial Pursuit, to charity quizzes. Online contests have become enormously popular during the coronavirus lockdown: one, the Virtual Pub Quiz, has attracted 175,000 people.

But experts argue that there are different types of intelligence. Professor of psychology Adrian Furnham makes a distinction between “crystallised” intelligence (remembering what you have learnt) and “fluid” intelligence (the ability to analyse and solve problems at speed).

He argues that somebody who had never been to school would do badly on shows that are based on crystallised intelligence, such as University Challenge or Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, but they might be brilliant at Sudoku because of their fluid intelligence.

Quiz shows also involve keeping cool under pressure, which not all clever people are good at.

Do quiz shows really test intelligence?

Your final answer

Some say, yes, they do. In many respects, they are just like tests at school – which require crystallised intelligence – except that you have a shorter time to give the right response. Sometimes, though, you will be asked a question to which you have never known the answer, in which case you have to make an educated guess – and that is a test of fluid intelligence.

Others argue that quiz shows simply test a person’s ability to recall factual information. Real intelligence is about using your brain in everyday tasks, or at work, that often means identifying a problem and working out a solution to it for yourself, which is far more demanding than being given a question to which there is only one correct answer.

You Decide

  1. What is the strangest fact that you know?
  2. How important is general knowledge in the age of Google?


  1. Devise a weekend quiz for your family. Come up with 10 different categories, such as music, sport, and books, and think of two questions for each category. Then design a certificate to be awarded to the winner – and conduct the quiz at the end of this week.
  2. Write a one-act play about a TV quiz that goes wrong, with one person playing the quiz master and the others acting as contestants. Then get your family to perform it with you.

Some People Say...

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Quiz shows are tremendously popular. University Challenge was voted 34th out of the 100 greatest British TV programmes in a British Film Institute survey. Around the world, there have been more than 150 versions of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Mastermind – whose inventor, Bill Wright, drew on his experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo during WW2 – has run for 46 series.
What do we not know?
How many types of intelligence there are. American psychologist Howard Gardner suggested eight. These are: logical/mathematical; linguistic; kinesthetic (controlling your body and handling objects); interpersonal (dealing with other people); intrapersonal (understanding yourself); naturalistic (understanding the environment); spatial (visualising things and judging distances), and musical.

Word Watch

A person who gives an angry look.
An important part of. A “staple diet” means the food, such as potatoes, pasta, or rice, that someone mainly lives on.
Essentially or unfailingly. It comes from the Latin word haerere, meaning to stick.
Confident to the point of rudeness. It may be related to the word “rash”, meaning reckless.
Something that eliminates distinctions. In 17th-Century England, a group of Puritan extremists demanding equality for all people were known as the Levellers.
A type of puzzle in which you have to work out missing numbers. Although the name is Japanese, it is believed to have been invented by an American in the 1970s.
Educated guess
A guess which is based on things you know related to the question, even if you don’t actually know the answer.


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