Book Review: ‘The Joy of Quiz’ by Alan Connor

Kathryn Friedlander reviews ‘The Joy of Quiz‘ and explores its relevance to the study of expert performance, puzzle solving and niche hobbies.


Joy of Quiz‘Here’s a question: ‘Why do we spend our childhood in fear of exams, then quite willingly put ourselves through pretty much the same tests as adults?’ … The short answer is: fun. The joy of quiz is in making a gratifying game out of all that knowledge sploshing around in our heads – fascinating information, but information for which our jobs and our personal lives stubbornly refuse to find any use’.

So begins this engaging romp through the world of quizzing: an engrossing compendium of trivia and analysis drawn from social history, psychology and real-life ‘behind-the-scenes’ knowledge, based on Alan Connor‘s own experiences as a quiz editor for the BBC2 quiz Only Connect.

In a poll Alan commissioned in 2016, 81% of British adults said that they watch, listen to or take part in quizzes, with 44% doing so at least once a week. So at some level of engagement, quizzing is actually a pretty popular activity in the UK, and one which surely merits our attention as psychologists.

Trivial_Pursuit

Trivial Pursuit – Genus edition

Of course, many of us are simply dipping into our favourite TV shows, like University Challenge, Only Connect, Eggheads or Fifteen to One. Or maybe we dig out our trusty set of Trivial Pursuit (whether that’s the ‘Genus’, ‘Baby Boomer’ or Harry Potter editions!) once in a while. There’s lots on all of these topics in the first few chapters to satisfy the social historian: when the radio ‘quiz show’ concept was originally developed (surprisingly recently, in the 1940s); the painstaking, eccentric and fitful evolution of ‘Trivial Pursuit’ itself; and the development of the TV quiz format.

But it’s the other parts of this book that particularly caught my imagination as a psychologist. Throughout the book we get intriguing glimpses into the competitive world of ultra-hard quizzing: the venues, and the formats, but most especially the competitors, their dedication to the pursuit of quizzing, and their preparation for the contests. For those of us here at CREATE who are studying niche hobby populations and their motivations for taking part, this book is a mine of information.

How on earth can anyone prepare for pretty much any question to come up, anyway? The answer is to be found in Chapter 8, and to psychologists it is reassuringly familiar: Elaborative Processing. In the words of Mastermind champion Gary Grant ‘I certainly never tried to learn “facts”. That was something only geeks would do…’ (p.101). Rather, it’s a question of establishing ‘trellises of information’ in your head, and of attaching new facts into this structure. The existing framework enables new items to be assimilated into a richer memory record, allowing for meaningful cross-associations to form which facilitate the retrieval of the item from multiple angles, as and when needed.

(Sounds simple, yes? … Not that knowing this helped me to answer the 300-or-so trivia questions embedded in bold throughout the text, though I became pretty good at reading the small-print answers upside down!)

In other chapters, we also see competitors at their most fragile – overcome by stage nerves – and at their most greedy – apparently pulling off ‘a million-pound sting right in front of the cameras’. All familiar territory in the performance psychology world, where stage-fright, performance anxiety and choking are real demons for so many participants; and cheating is found even in the prestigious echelons of tournament chess.

Quiz NightWe are also introduced to the cast behind the scenes: those who devise and verify the questions; who phrase and refine the question wording; and who host the event and actually deliver the questions, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the scores and listening to the adjudicators through an earpiece. We learn what makes a ‘good question’ and explore the difference in genres between straightforward ‘factual recall’ questions and the more lateral puzzles requiring cross-connections between seemingly unconnected items, such as those featured in Only Connect and BBC Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz.

All in all, this is an absorbing book, packed with information, and delivered with wit and panache. Although a ‘popular’ work, it has a reference section at the end giving full citations of often scholarly articles to back up the main text. And it has an excellent index, making it easy to locate particular people and details. Even the dust-cover of the hardback edition is a sheet of perforated squares which could be separated into a set of quiz clues (question on the front; answer on the reverse): just how creative is that?!

But best of all, it is written in an unabashedly enthusiastic, clear and sympathetic style, celebrating all that is interesting, quirky and compelling about the world of quiz and those who take part in it.


The Joy of Quiz’ by Alan Connor was published by Particular Books, Penguin, Random House, UK in November 2016. 320 pages

About the author: Alan Connor is the author of The Joy of Quiz and Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The Puzzling, Playful World of the Crossword. He is a British writer, journalist and television presenter. His screenwriting credits include the snooker biopic film The Rack Pack and the comedy-drama A Young Doctor’s Notebook, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm.

First seen on Channel 4’s youth entertainment programme The Word in 1995, Connor later appeared on The Big Breakfast and BBC Radio Five Live and was a BBC News correspondent, appearing on BBC News 24 and The Daily Politics. He is the question editor of BBC2’s quiz Only Connect and the crossword blogger for The Guardian newspaper.
Photo credits:
The Joy of Quiz, front cover: Penguin Books
Quiz Nights: Kake, Flickr

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