Non-Trivial Trivia

April 2011


Each April, Mensa CultureQuest® teams gather in living rooms across the country and attempt to answer a set of trivia questions as accurately as possible in exactly 90 minutes, using only paper, pencil, and brainpower. The competition is not about winning. It’s about testing one’s cultural knowledge.


Is it important to know that Burt Lancaster and Vivien Leigh were both born in 1913, only 3 days apart? And that Leigh was born in India and Lancaster in New York City? What about more practical facts such as knowing the formula to convert Fahrenheit degrees to Celsius degrees? And shouldn’t everyone know how many days are in each month, how many inches are in a yard, how many feet are in a mile, or that the United States is roughly 3000 miles across?


Having the general attitude that small facts are not important enough to remember gives one license to ignore information. Those who find small facts too insignificant to commit to memory often believe that the brain has limited space and should not be filled with “useless” facts. Memory functions best with connected information, so pairing generally-known facts with trivial facts builds better memory pathways. For example, knowing that the states achieved statehood in a general pattern of east to west helps one remember that Wisconsin became a state 10 years earlier than Minnesota and both attained statehood prior to the start of the Civil War. Filling the gaps of our memory with small facts allows construction of a solid framework on which to hang future knowledge as it is encountered.


Trivia games are a fun way to encourage and perpetuate cultural knowledge. The board game Trivial Pursuit and the television program Jeopardy do much to demonstrate how much there is to know. For those who enjoy trivia, playing these games offers encouragement. For others, realizing how much there is to know just confirms the belief that it isn’t worth the time and energy to remember things. But as humans, we have time and energy, and making ourselves more knowledgeable about the world around us better prepares us for future experiences and opportunities. Choosing to close oneself off from knowledge closes many doors and stifles many opportunities.


And then we have the argument that we can look up anything at any time on the Internet, so why bother remembering it? This argument overlooks the obvious facts that looking up things takes time, one doesn’t always have an Internet connection readily available, and a conversation filled with stops and starts punctuated with multiple investigations on the Internet is not pleasant. I would rather just remember as much as possible, so my thoughts and conversations can be rich, smooth, informative, and engaging as human conversing is meant to be.