Against trivia

There are approximately ten thousand trivia shows on television - Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Countdown, The Chase, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, Mastermind. The genre is so popular that there are even trivia shows that aren’t even really trivia (example: Family Feud is about guessing what other people think the answer is, not some objective fact). Most allow the average viewer to think they might be able to compete. A sizeable number of people will in fact compete in a local pub quiz or similar.

I think this is all a bad thing.

Fake knowledge

By definition, trivia is unimportant information. If its unimportant, perhaps we shouldn’t bother with remembering it. From Sherlock Holmes:

[Watson narrating] My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it…

”You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”…

”But the Solar System!” I protested.

”What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

To be clear, I think it’s useful to have foundational knowledge, like the Earth orbits the Sun, as support for other worldviews. The heliocentric model and its surrounding context helps, for example, to distinguish between astronomy and astrology. So it’s useful to know the Earth goes around the Sun but much less useful that a day on Neptune is 16 hoursI hope to forget this fact soon..

Trivia also leads you to think you know more than you do. There are a few experiments showing that people think they can explain something when they can’t. The psychologists have called this effect the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (like Dunning-Kruger but apparently different). Here’s an experiment to try at home: first, rate how confident you are in drawing a bike. Don’t put down a lower number just because you read this! Write your gut feeling. Then, draw a bike. Compare the drawing to a photo and judge whether your confidence was justified. Supposedly, most people in this experiment were overconfident. They’re unable to “explain” their knowledge of a bicycle - or some piece of trivia - because their knowledge has no depth; it is fake.


There’s more to the story than learning, or trivia would be a solitary activity. Taking part in social competitions gives plausible deniability, absent in a normal conversation, not just to be intelligent, but importantly to appear intelligent. I suspect this desire to look smart is a holdover from school days. There is little opportunity for a public display of intelligence in adult life; therefore the pub quiz. Of course there’s the alcohol and socialization, but that’s possible without the quiz.

Trivia knowledge also signals a kind of personality. The dating app Bumble allows you to write a few responses to a list of questions. One of these prompts is “a fun fact I’m obsessed with is…” and you fill in the blank. You can’t write much here, you’re not supposed to say more, it’s just a signal. Let’s try an example - are you an “otters hold hands when they sleep” or an “edison didn’t invent the light bulb”? Trick question, you’re the type of person that likes fun facts. And the type of person who likes fun facts is probably also the type of person who likes watching TV and going out to bars, and maybe that’s what the guy on the other end of the app is really looking for.


Consider avoiding fun facts, pub quizzes, and trivia shows.