BBC News


Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Does University Challenge really test intelligence?

The Magazine answers...

Gail Trimble: baffled by the attention

Gail Trimble has been called the brainiest woman in Britain after steering Oxford's Corpus Christi college to victory in University Challenge, but does the programme really test intelligence?

How to test intelligence is a longstanding debate in academic circles.

That hasn't stopped Britain's newspapers praising Corpus Christi's Gail Trimble as the "cleverest" and "brainiest" ever to take part in University Challenge. But is having a wide range of general knowledge the same as being a "clever" person?

Adrian Furnham is a professor of psychology at University College London and has studied the relationship between general knowledge and intelligence.

He makes a distinction between what he describes as "fluid" and "crystallised" intelligence.

University Challenge and similar quiz shows test one form of intelligence - crystallised - very thoroughly
Their testing of other forms is debatable

"Fluid intelligence is analysis, maybe doing Sudoku or a Rubik's cube - speed of analysis with problem solving. You don't have to have had an education."

Crystallised intelligence on the other hand is knowledge you have learnt and then access from memory. Knowing all of the counties in the British Isles is a piece of crystallised intelligence.

Prof Furnham thinks University Challenge is skewed towards this type of intelligence.

"They measure, almost entirely, crystallised intelligence. It is a good index but it is only one branch of intelligence," he says.

He admits they have some analytical questions which test fluid intelligence, requiring contestants to solve equations or process information, but suggests they are by no means the majority.

"They try and have a bit of that for the physicists but they don't have many of those items. They're much more likely to ask you what the capital of Upper Volta is."

Countdown is in general a much better test of this type of mental ability, he suggests.

There are scientists who argue that people with high fluid intelligence will more quickly acquire crystallised intelligence.

The Young Ones enter University Challenge
Not all contestants are of equal calibre

Thomas Benson is the question editor for University Challenge and writes a fifth of the questions on the programme.

"Hmmm... this would be a good starter question," he says.

"We don't set out to test intelligence but I think we do test a certain aspect - the part that is reactive rather than creative."

In other words, most questions are of the knowledge recall, crystallised variety, but he does say this series has featured more "two-step" questions, which do need more than this.

He gives the example of one question which required contestants to make new words from British postal codes (CANE from the codes for Carlisle and Newcastle, a recent example). Contestants both needed to know the postal codes, and be able to creatively re-arrange them to form the new word.

He says there would normally be up to six questions like this which need more than recall in the average edition, as well as one question testing mental arithmetic and are very much in the minority.

"They need to have been through the traditional education system, and have had a thorough academic grounding," he says.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"There's a certain type of person who's just really good at absorbing lots of intricate detail, only here it's in the academic world."

And of course, whatever the type of intelligence involved, the contestants have to be quick, says journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, a competitor on the "professionals" series of the show.

"Often I found I knew the answer to the question but someone else got in a nanosecond earlier. [The viewer] can't tell that has happened.

"There are some extremely intelligent and knowledgeable people who are just a bit slower."

Psychologists and philosophers have many different concepts of intelligence, and not all would recognise the fluid/crystallised distinction.

American psychologist Howard Gardner thinks intelligence has eight aspects: logical, linguistic, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, naturalist, intrapersonal and interpersonal.

For Gardner, even specially designed psychometric tests don't fully test intelligence, so a television quiz, even of University Challenge's gruelling nature, wouldn't come close.

Prof Furnham says that even if the programme is a not good test of all round mental ability, he is convinced that Trimble is the real deal.

"She would do well on any form of intelligence test," he says.

Send us your comments using the form below.

An interesting distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence; but perhaps University Challenge also tests fluid intelligence in a way not mentioned in the article. As Jeremy Paxman noted in another BBC article, one of the remarkable aspects of Ms Trimble's performance is her ability correctly to "guess" the question before it has been fully read. I would argue that this guessing is in fact an example of fluid intelligence, presumably by matching the phraseology patterns in previous questions to infer the remainder of the current question.
Rich Tebb, Glos, UK

No, it doesn't test intelligence. It tests a persons ability to recall factual information that is of little or no use in daily life or in employment. Intelligence has nothing to do with recall, these people may be "informed" but that is all, they are experts at knowing things that don't really have a practical use. Intelligence is being able to see a problem and working out a way around it or how to fix it. Impressive as it is, I believe that social skills and being able to adapt to situations rather than merely recall information from a book is far more valuable. Does anyone actually believe that winning University Challenge makes a person more employable or more likely to be a success as a business person?! Not a chance.
Jon Burrage, Bristol

If I could have my way in hiring new recruits... give them any broadsheet cryptic crossword, 20 minutes, closed room - followed by an hour in the pub. For the first part: there is no better general test of knowledge, experience, roundedness, decent education, laterality, and wit. Sure there'd be some good candidates that I'd miss, but I'd be on safe ground with regards to the necessary intelligence. The second part would help me see if they "got it". Anyone who needs "getting it" defining, by definition doesn't get it, by the way. And wouldn't get the job either...
Paul, London

I've watched University Challenge for many years and I think it is biased towards Arts and Humanities questions. I find the Science questions are not generally University level questions but 'A' Level or even sometimes GCSE, especially when a Biology question is asked. I don't consider myself unintelligent (though I can't answer for my spelling, I apologise if there are any mistakes), and my education and career path seem to bear that out. However I would do very badly if I were to participate in University Challenge. There are most definitely different type of intelligence and University Challenge is mostly based on recall of Literature, Arts and History.
Louise Stone, Nottingham England

Intelligence is like music. There are lots of different genres, but we know it when we hear it. Some musicians display virtuosity in playing back classical pieces, others in the world of improvisation - just as with the crystal / fluid types of intelligence mentioned above. And, as with music, there are infinite shades of grey between. It cannot be defined in black and white. The question here, really, is how our intelligence impacts everyday, functional life. There is a quote that has kept me going for many years, a quote that comes from The Simpsons. Lisa, discussing her father Homer's recent rise in IQ comments 'As intelligence goes up, happiness often goes down. Look, I made a graph. I make a lot of graphs'.
Dean, Exeter

If Howard Gardner's criteria are a fair summary of the types of intelligence does that mean the Krypton Factor is a more accurate test of intelligence than University Challenge or Mastermind?
Bill Evans, Milford Haven

This article inspired me to look up the capital of Upper Volta. It is Ouagadougou. I'm not sure how I'm going to weave that bit of trivia into a conversation but I'm certainly going to try. Thanks.
Leo, Bristol

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific