You're Not as Good at Game Shows As You Think You Are

An Inquiring Mind by Ginny Smith

What can 80s gameshows tell us about hindsight bias? Both in quiz answers and hairstyle choices.

Last week, I was asked to host an event which required me to do some research. And that research involved watching an 80s gameshow, where contestants had to guess the word being described by a bunch of adorable children¹. In the show, the audience at home isn’t encouraged to play along- we are actually given the answer before hearing the first clue. As I watched the grainy YouTube footage I noticed two things. 1) 80s hairstyles really were something special and 2) the contestants were finding the game surprisingly difficult. To me, the kids’ descriptions seemed pretty obvious, and I found it amazing how long it took the players to guess some of them.

My first thought was that maybe this episode just had particularly dense contestants. But then I began to wonder if there was something else going on, so I decided to do a little experiment on myself. At the start of the next round, when they showed the answer, I shut my eyes. Now, suddenly, the kids descriptions seemed much more cryptic, and the players’ guesses much less idiotic. I realised my brain had been playing a trick on me- giving me the benefit of hindsight before the game had even begun.

The hindsight bias is a common trap we all fall into. ‘I knew I should have brought an umbrella’, ‘I knew we would miss the train if we left that late’ or even ‘I knew they weren’t right for each other’- things seem so clear and obvious after they have happened. And this happens in quizzes too. Have you ever been racking your brain for the answer to a tricky question, only to say ‘of course, I knew that!’ once it has been read out? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you probably didn’t know it.

It turns out we aren’t very good at knowing what we knew in the past- something known as meta-knowledge. Once we have been given the correct answer, the fact that we now know it interferes with our memory, tricking us into thinking we knew it all along. Add to this an element of familiarity- perhaps we had heard the answer previously at some point in our lives- and you have a recipe for a confident but entirely false belief.

But there is something else at play here as well, and it relates to how the brain makes sense of the world. When information arrives through our senses, our brain processes it- this is known as bottom-up processing (no, not like that!). But the brain itself changes your experiences as well, based on your past knowledge- this is known as top-down processing. For example, when first looking at the picture just below this paragraph, most people see nothing more than splodges. But if you scroll to the bottom of this post, you will see a clue that will provide enough top-down information to help most people see something hidden in the randomness.

This is exactly what was happening to me- once I knew that the kids were talking about a snake, the answers seemed to fit well with what a snake is. And my brain ignored all the other things they could be describing when they said ‘it’s quite long and it moves around a lot’. But rather than letting me know that it only seemed obvious because I knew the answer, my brain had me believe that it was because my intellect was far superior to the game’s contestants. This is another bias- we tend to see our successes as being down to our intrinsic abilities, while negative outcomes are a case of bad luck.

So the next time you are watching a game show and you think ‘of course, I would have got that one right!’ I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but your brain is probably lying to you.

Clue: Dalmatian

¹. I have a very strange job sometimes!

Original credit for this image is difficult to source but it’s believed to come from Life magazine from Ronald C James. If you are the photographer, or know the correct credit, please get in touch via the contact page.

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Ginny Smith is a science presenter and writer. A Natural Sciences and Psychology graduate of Cambridge, Ginny performs science shows all over the world and presents a wide range of science content for the likes of the Cosmic Shambles Network and the Naked Scientists. She is the co-author of three DK Publishing books looking at science, food and the human body. She is @GinnyFBSmith on Twitter.

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