The hugely popular British quiz show Trainer has been a fixture on BBC television since its debut in 1972, spawning several international versions as well as a video game and countless parodies. Now it has inspired researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, to use several recent sessions as a “real-life” lab to study physiological responses to stress, according to a new book published in the journal Psychophysiology. The findings also confirm some previous conclusions of lab-based studies and contradict others. The Arizona team also found that random variations in the time the host took to ask different questions meant that Trainer is not properly “fair” when it comes to determining the winner.
What is the purpose of a game show? According to the authors, it is because the lab-based experiment in psychology is inherently limited, in that it is simply too difficult to correct the human complex of knowledge in a kind of systematic control, especially when studying things like stress and knowledge. “The stakes are too low, the tasks are too simple, the participants are often bored, and the equipment, such as MRI scanners, are too burdensome, making lab-based tests are proving to be ineffective. better than real-world science,” the authors wrote.
A seminal 1927 study by Eric Ponder and WP Kennedy on whether processing increases when people are under stress is a descriptive issue. Ponder and Kennedy initially tried to prove this connection in a lab-based setting with participants attached to uncomfortable devices to measure neutral frequency. But they were only successful in eliciting the appropriate level of stress in test subjects once, when a frustrated participant was actually angry. They turn instead to measure the way witnesses are blinded under adversary cross-examination in a court of law. That did the trick, confirming Ponder and Kennedy’s theory that flashbacks do indeed increase in stressful situations.
In the past two decades in particular, scientists have turned to TV game shows as a kind of laboratory setting that better simulates real-world situations for human behavior and intelligence. Such shows have higher stakes, cause real stress, and ultimately are more engaging for participants. Most such studies have focused on risk decision making, given that many games show added aspects of the game. Candidates over Business or Not, for example, must choose between receiving a cash prize of a known amount (for example, $40,000) or risking it all on a “mystery box” that can have less money or up to $1 million. We had Who Wants To Be A Millionaire requiring contestants to risk their accumulated winnings in each subsequent round as they attempt to answer multiple choice questions.
Robert Wilson, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Arizona, wants to expand the use of game shows in brain studies beyond selective behavior and thinking. Trainer offer the first opportunity. Each episode has four contestants, each of them must answer the questions asked consecutively in two timed rounds, while sitting in a black leather chair with a bright spotlight on their eyes. It’s a deliberately hateful environment that should be supported by Gestapo interrogation methods (at least that’s what show creator Bill Wright, a former WW2 POW, says).
The first round lasts two minutes, with questions drawn from the candidate’s chosen area—the history of hand knitting, for example, or the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second round takes two and a half minutes and features general knowledge questions. Candidates can answer the question or pass and move on to the next. The advantage of moving is to avoid the “time cost” of an incorrect answer, since the host will give slow feedback by saying the correct answer—and seconds are precious. If the candidate passes, the correct answers will be displayed at the end of the round. The contestant with the highest combined score wins the event and continues to compete in the semifinals and finals, with one person crowned the champion each time.