A ‘Jeopardy!’ Winner Studied How Trivia Experts Recall Facts

11:11 minutes

Four smiling people standing at a Jeopardy! games desk with "$300,000" on the screen.
Left to right: Alex Trebek, Monica Thieu, Ken Jennings and Matt Jackson, during the 2019 “Jeopardy! All-Star Games” finale. Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

When contestants play “Jeopardy!,” it can be amazing to see how quickly they seem to recall even the most random, obscure facts. One multi-time “Jeopardy!” contestant, Dr. Monica Thieu, noticed something interesting about the way that she and her fellow contestants were recalling tidbits of information. They weren’t just remembering the facts, but also the context of how they learned them: where they were, what they read, who they were with. Hypothesizing that for trivia superstars, information was strongly tied to the experience of learning it, she put that anecdotal evidence to the test. The results of her research were recently published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks with Dr. Thieu, a psychology researcher at Emory University, and Dr. Mariam Aly, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, and a co-author of the new study. They discuss the psychology of trivia, how to get better at it, and why some people seem to be much more adept at recalling fun trivia facts than others.

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Segment Guests

Monica Thieu

Dr. Monica Thieu is a Jeopardy winner and a psychology researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mariam Aly

Dr. Mariam Aly is an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

SPEAKER: I love doing trivia. Every couple of weeks, I go to my local dive bar for trivia night. I’m also an avid Jeopardy watcher. But despite all this, I’m still not very good.

But rather than give up on my dream of being a top tier trivia player, this got me thinking. Can I actually get better at trivia? And why are some people better at it than others? A new study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review looked at exactly this. And here to break down the psychology of trivia are two coauthors of that paper, Dr. Monica Thieu, psychology researcher at Emory University and a Jeopardy winner. She’s based in Atlanta, Georgia; and Dr. Mariam Ali, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, in New York. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.

MONICA THIEU: It’s amazing to be here. Thank you.

MARIAM ALI: Yeah, thanks so much for having us. I’m really excited.

SPEAKER: Yeah, so am I. So Monica, tell me a little bit about where the idea for this study came from? I mean, was it from your time on Jeopardy?

MONICA THIEU: Yeah. I mean, to be fully frank, since I first was on Jeopardy as a senior in high school, when I went to college and I majored in psychology, I was like, one day, I’m going to have a research study where we can call Ken Jennings and ask him to come in and get his brain scan.


MONICA THIEU: Which we didn’t scan anyone’s brains for this study. So still do it. But I have been curious for a long time about how trivia experts’ memory, I suppose including mine, is maybe different than other people’s. Because I’ve always known other people in my classes, in my grad programs, who are so smart. And yet they all were like, Monica, why do you know all this random stuff? And so it really wasn’t until I was in grad school, where I felt like I had enough of a science idea to actually do a research study about it.

SPEAKER: So you didn’t get to scan Ken Jennings’s brain. But did you talk to other Jeopardy contestants about this?

MONICA THIEU: Yeah. So in 2019, I was invited back to do the Jeopardy all-star games. And while I was there, I was meeting other Jeopardy champions who were so great and so smart and so knowledgeable. And as we were talking about people’s experience of knowing and remembering trivia, something that I realized that we seem to have in common was that all the experts that I talked to seemed to have a really good memory for the episodic details of when they learned trivia facts.

So like, Where were you? What textbook? What class? Where did you sit? What trip did you go on where you saw this in a museum? All of that side memory, that is about learning the facts, but not necessarily specifically the information itself.

SPEAKER: Very interesting. So how did you actually test this idea, Monica?

MONICA THIEU: So when Mariam and I were designing this research study, we knew that we had to try to teach people new facts in the lab. Because if you’re trying to recruit some trivia experts and some trivia non-experts to do a study, so the big issue is that half of your participants already know a bunch of stuff. And so then we’re not testing their memory for learning new things. We’re only testing their memory for stuff they already know.

So what I did with Lauren, our third co-author, was we basically, literally went to the library and checked out reference books and went to EncyclopediaBritannica.com and spent so much time on there collecting lots of obscure facts to put together these little, quote unquote, “science and history” museums. So what these museums really are is it’s an online task where on each exhibit page, you would see a little picture of an exhibit item, so maybe like a particular musical instrument from history. And you’d also see a little paragraph place card giving you some information about that musical instrument. And you’d be read the fact on the place card by a narrator.

So what we had people do is we had them go through these museums one exhibit at a time. Then after they went through these museums, we tested their memory for three different things. So first, we tested their memory for trivia facts that they would have learned from the place cards. Then we tested their memory for which exhibit pictures they saw.

So let’s say you saw a picture of a Hardanger fiddle, which, in this case, is like a Norwegian violin-like instrument. They used it in the Lord of the Rings– The Two Towers for the Rohan theme. It’s great. But let’s say we show you two different pictures of two Hardanger fiddles. One is the one you saw before, and one is a slightly different picture of a different fiddle. But you can’t use your memory to say one is a fiddle and one is not. You have to remember exactly which one you saw.

So after we tested people’s memory for the facts they saw and the exhibit pictures, finally we tested their memory for which museum they saw that picture in. Because we showed people these exhibits in two different, quote unquote, “museums.” One was called the Amber Archives, where everything was orange themed. And one was called the Cobalt Collections, where everything was blue themed.

So then when we analyzed the data, we looked at, A, How was people’s memory for the facts that they learned in the study? And B, does memory for the picture that you saw in the exhibit and which museum you saw it in seem to correlate with your memory for the fact itself?

SPEAKER: OK, super fascinating. So Mariam, when you took a look at all this data, what did you find?

MARIAM ALI: So what we found is that trivia experts were better at learning brand new, novel facts in our experiment. So these are facts they’d only seen before in our study, and they were better at acquiring these new facts. But they didn’t have better memory overall. So if we just ask them to indicate which of the two photographs they saw in the exhibit, they weren’t better at that than people who weren’t experts. So their memory wasn’t better across the board, but they seemed to be uniquely good at learning new facts.

And the critical thing that we found was that in trivia experts, but not non-experts, when they remembered a new fact they were also more likely to remember multiple features about how they learned it. So they remembered the details of the museum exhibit, like whether it was the Amber Archives or the Cobalt Collections, and the specific photo that was paired with that fact. So that really nicely dovetails with the anecdotal reports from experts that when they recall a fact, they remember details about how and where they learned it.

SPEAKER: Super interesting. So, Mariam, I mean, why do some people remember better than others? Do we know, is that information stored in maybe different parts of the brain?

MARIAM ALI: That’s a really good question. In this particular study, we don’t know whether trivia experts are better able to bind this unique information about the fact and the episode because of something different about how they’re paying attention, if it’s something different about how their memory systems work, or if it’s something else altogether. We do know that they don’t seem to be trying to do this intentionally, so it doesn’t seem to be a strategy that trivia experts have that non-experts don’t have.

But we don’t know yet whether it’s something related to how they pay attention during the learning experience. Do they attend more broadly, whereas non-experts might attend more narrowly? Or is it something related to how their memory systems work? So is it just that their episodic memory system and their fact memory systems are more tightly coupled than those of non-experts?

SPEAKER: So, I mean, can I take this information and apply it to my own learning? Can I train myself to become the winner of my local bars trivia, Mariam?

MARIAM ALI: I wish I could answer that. I could speculate. Based on our results, we don’t know whether this is going to be trainable. So we’d like to think that given that trivia experts have these super bound memories between what they learned and how they learned it, that maybe if we could get non-experts to try to bind those pieces of information together, maybe they’d become more like the experts. And to answer that question, we’d really have to do another study where we try to train people to show these memory signatures of experts by binding together what they learned and how they learned it.

SPEAKER: So can you walk me through. There’s this concept of the memory palace. Can you walk me through what this is and what it means?

MARIAM ALI: Yeah, so the memory palace is a related, but really relevant concept. So when we think about a memory palace, for example, if I need to memorize– and for reference, I’m way too lazy to learn how to do this stuff. But if I need to memorize, let’s say I shuffle a deck of cards, and I lay out all the shuffled cards. And I need to remember the order of each of the 52 cards only by looking at the deck for 15 or 20 seconds.

What I might do is I might prepare for each of the 52 cards. Let’s say the queen of spades, versus the 3 of diamonds. I might prepare for each of those a particular really vivid image that I then place in a memory representation of a physical location that I know really well. So let’s say my apartment building or my office.

And then if I need to remember a list of arbitrary things, like the cards in the deck, I can place each of those card-like mental images. So for example, for the 3 of clubs, maybe it’s like Jerry Seinfeld, or something. I can place each of those people, places, ideas into my memory palace, in this case, my mental image of my apartment. And as I walk around, and I go through the list, it’ll help me remember the information in that list better.

Because people’s episodic memory, their memory for places, experiences, and perceptual information– so what we can see, hear, or taste, smell, et cetera– it’s really good. And so memorizing lists is not something that people are generally as good at. So the memory palace is believed to work because it allows us to leverage the episodic memory system for remembering places and experience and especially navigating through places and seeing things, that it allows us to use that system to help us remember lists of things.

The way we think this relates to the memory that we study is that we don’t actually think that trivia experts are using a memory palace. But the memory palace shows us that when we use episodic memory, it can help us remember some non-episodic memory or fact information better and that maybe trivia experts are doing something in the other direction, where because their episodic memory and their fact memory are naturally talking to each other more, that that helps them remember the facts better.

SPEAKER: Thank you, both, so much for joining me, Dr. Monica Thieu, psychology researcher at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dr. Mariam Ali, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, in New York.

MONICA THIEU: Thank you. It’s been fun.

MARIAM ALI: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

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