Pointless: the gamification of metacognition

“But, Linda,” I hear you cry, “How would I practice and improve my metacognition?”

Here’s the set-up for the tea-time British quiz show, Pointless. Before the show, they test-drive the quiz questions with 100 people–probably audience volunteers–and give them just 100 seconds to come up with as many correct answers as possible. During the show, the quiz contestants try to come up with a correct answer that the fewest of those 100 people came up with. Contestants are looking for correct-but-obscure answers. If their answer is correct, their score is the number of test-drivers who gave the same answer. If their answer is incorrect, their score is 100. Then, as in golf, the lowest score wins. It may help Canadian and American readers to picture something that is the opposite of Family Feud in every way imaginable.

From Season 11, Episode 42: “Here comes your second question… It concerns film titles with 12-letter words. We’re going to show you five films now, all of which have one 12-letter word in their title. We’ve missed out that 12-letter word from each of the titles. Can you fill in the gaps?”

  • LA ____________ (1997)
  • AN ____________ TRUTH (2006)
  • BRIDE OF ____________  (1935)
  • ____________ COP (1990)
  • MISS ____________ (2000)

Here’s a thing Pointless contestants often say: “I know <particular answer> but that’s going to be a very high-scorer.” And they are often wrong. People assume that, since they know something, it’s common knowledge. In its best light, that’s sweetly modest: “I’m not that special, so I’ll bet they all know.” Generally, it’s a failure of Theory of Mind, our understanding that other people have their own feelings, experiences and knowledge, usually invisible to us and different from our own.

I love Pointless. It’s formulaic beyond words, and there are a terrifying number of questions about football, but it is the gamification of metacognition with a generous helping of Theory of Mind on the side. Every episode is a 40-minute mental workout evenly divided between “Which of these am I confident I can answer correctly?” and “Which of these do I think most other people can’t answer correctly?”

Have you looked over the film titles? Thought of a few answers? Which one do you know for sure, and think the fewest of the 100 people could answer correctly?

Answers to the Pointless question, with scores. Lower is better!

Answers to the Pointless question, with scores. Lower is better!

Footnote: One of the classic tests of Theory of Mind is the false-belief task, especially the Sally/Anne task. You act out a scene where two dolls, Sally and Anne, hide a cookie together, then Sally leaves the room and Anne moves the cookie. When Sally comes back, ask your audience where Sally looks for the hidden cookie. Until around age four, human kids think Sally will look in the second hiding place, even though she was out of the room when Anne moved the cookie. Youngsters attribute all of their own knowledge–they know where Anne shifted the cookie–to everyone else, including Sally. This is a staple of intro psychology courses and I think every undergrad with a preschool sibling has tried the Sally/Anne task with that sibling and posted it online. Now you have two things to search YouTube for.

One thought

  1. It’s like Boggle – being good at coming up with answers isn’t as useful as being good at coming up with unique ones.


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