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Why Trivia Is More Than Just Trivial

What good can knowing the capital of Albania really serve? You’d be surprised.

Put Ignorance in Jeopardy

What good can knowing the capital of Albania really serve? You’d be surprised.

By Ben Zhang, Duke University

Quick: What’s the capital of Albania?

Whether or not you got the answer to that question, you might be wondering what its purpose was in the first place. “That’s such a trivial thing to ask!” you may say. While such a declaration wouldn’t be completely amiss, it would overlook some underlying crucial points. Yes, trivia questions asking for things such as the capital city of a lesser-known Balkan state may seem pointless. But, if you are willing to dig deeper, you might find that there is more to trivia than meets the eye.

One of trivia’s primary benefits is that it enables you to learn a surprising amount about a wide variety of subjects. As prominent “Jeopardy!” champion Roger Craig once put it, “The name of the game is breadth not depth.”

What makes trivia so challenging (and fun) is that the questions can come from virtually any area of knowledge known to man. One minute, you may be trying to come up with the name of the peace settlement that ended the Mexican-American War (the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo), and the next, you may be racking your brain in an effort to name Kanye West’s debut studio album (“The College Dropout”). Being weak in just one field (opera, anyone?) could make the difference between victory and defeat for both the six-time returning “Jeopardy!” champ and the regular at her local pub’s weekly trivia night.

Why Trivia Is More Than Just Trivial
Image via Burke Museum

The only real way to prepare, therefore, “is to be a rabidly curious, information-omnivorous person your entire life,” as 74-time “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings put it. Those who excel at trivia develop a passion for acquiring knowledge and continually strive to learn new things. People who do this will find themselves better equipped to navigate their daily lives, as information, when employed properly, can be powerful.

For example, knowing the difference between Arabica and Robusta could be very helpful if one had to buy coffee as a gift for someone else. Being conscious of what routers and modems are would make the process of setting up a home Wi-Fi system much easier. And, perhaps, one might even be able to understand more references on “Futurama.” In short, you would be hard-pressed to come up with situations in which learning more about the world around you came back to haunt you.

When it comes to trivia, there are also several potential health benefits. Many people are quick to dismiss anything that they don’t know as “trivial” or “unimportant.” However, they will usually perk up immediately when asked a trivia question to which they know the answer. What can explain this apparent hypocrisy?

Putting aside the hubris argument, we see that answering trivia questions can provide you with a dopamine rush not unlike one you might get from gambling. Thus, since participating in trivia is not directly detrimental to your well-being, it can act as a sort of substitute for more dangerous behavior. Perhaps in the future, trivia games will become the new e-cigarettes.

Trivia also helps to engage your frontal cortex, or the part of the brain that plays a major role in the processing of memories. Though trivia masters are often loath to admit it, trivia is more of a memory feat than anything else. It is not enough to know large amounts of information; you must be also able to recall facts in a timely fashion, as otherwise, the window during which you can answer questions will quickly close. Thus, trivia helps to keep the mind sharp and engaged, a plus for all occupations that require any amount of brainpower.

Of course, there are some trivia pitfalls that one must be careful to avoid. One of them actually stems from an aforementioned trivia strength. Because there are so many possible question categories, writers cannot make their questions too involved. As a result, the “breadth not depth” criterion can lead to some undesirable problems.

For example, some questions are written in a manner that encourages stereotyping. A “Jeopardy!” clue from a few years ago, for example, read “Tai chi was among the in-flight activities of Liu Yang, who, in 2012, became this country’s first female taikonaut.” Even if one does not know what tai chi or taikonauts are, one can deduce the correct response (China) from the name Liu Yang, which “looks Chinese.”

The lack of depth in trivia questions can also inspire a certain sort of laziness. As an illustrative example, Aldebaran is the only star in Taurus that is normally asked about in trivia. That, however, doesn’t mean that other stars don’t exist in the constellation. Though some people may simply memorize Aldebaran just so they can get Aldebaran-related questions correct, their example should not be followed. Remember: Trivia is supposed to inspire one the acquisition of knowledge, not discourage it.

The discovery of surface-level facts should always lead to the exploration of what lies below them.

Finally, it must be said that trivia should never be equated with intelligence. Knowing that Jean Rhys wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” does not necessarily mean that one is smarter than everyone else; it just means that one knows that Jean Rhys wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea.” Thus, you shouldn’t feel stupid if you fail to know the answers to trivia questions; rather, you should take note of the correct responses and try to recall them the next time they are referenced.

Likewise, you shouldn’t ever use trivia questions to feel better about yourself or make fun of other people. If you ever find yourself doing just that, remember: Trivia questions (and answers) are largely unimportant. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be referred to as trivia.

But, in the end, we shouldn’t let trivia’s potential drawbacks outweigh its many upsides. Given the current state of affairs in the country, it may be more important than ever. The best way to deal with a potential post-truth world is to engage in activities that promote the spread of information and knowledge. What activity besides trivia is better at doing just that?

By the way, for those who didn’t know: the capital of Albania is Tirana. File that little tidbit away in your brain. You never know when you might need it.

Writer Profile

Ben Zhang

Duke University
Computer Science/Mathematics

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