BBC quiz show with Gestapo-inspired design offers study on stress responses

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The hugely popular British quiz show Mastermind has been a fixture on BBC television since its debut in 1972, spawning multiple international versions as well as a video game and countless parodies. Now it has inspired researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, to use several recent seasons as a "real-world" lab to study physiological responses to stress, according to a new paper published in the journal Psychophysiology. The findings reaffirmed some prior conclusions of lab-based studies and contradicted others. The Arizona team also found that random variations in the time the host takes to ask different questions means that Mastermind is not perfectly "fair" when it comes to determining the winner.

Why a game show? According to the authors, it's because lab-based experiments in psychology have inherent limitations, in that it is simply too difficult to accurately reproduce complex human cognition in such a controlled setting—particularly when studying things like stress and cognition. "The stakes are too low, the tasks too simple, participants are often bored, and the equipment, such as MRI scanners, too cumbersome, making lab-based experiments a poor reflection of real-world cognition," the authors wrote.

A seminal 1927 study by Eric Ponder and W.P. Kennedy on whether blinking increases when people are under stress is an illustrative case. Ponder and Kennedy initially tried to prove this connection in a lab-based setting with participants hooked up to clunky, uncomfortable devices to measure blink frequency. But they only succeeded in generating the appropriate degree of stress in the test subjects once, when a frustrated participant became genuinely angry. They turned instead to surreptitiously measuring the blink frequency of witnesses under hostile cross-examination in a courtroom. That did the trick, confirming Ponder and Kennedy's hypothesis that blinking does indeed increase in stressful situations.

Over the last two decades in particular, psychologists have increasingly turned to TV game shows as a kind of lab setting that better mimics real-world contexts for human behavior and cognition. Such shows have higher stakes, induce genuine stress, and are ultimately more engaging for participants. Most such studies have focused on risky decision-making, given that so many game shows incorporate aspects of gambling. Contestants on Deal or No Deal, for instance, must choose between taking a cash prize of known amount (eg, $40,000) or risking it all on a "mystery box" that could contain less money or as much as $1 million. And Who Wants To Be a Millionaire requires contestants to risk their accumulated winnings in each successive round as they attempt to answer multiple-choice questions.

Robert Wilson, a cognitive scientist at the University of Arizona, wanted to expand the use of game shows in psychological studies beyond choice behavior and thought Mastermind offered a prime opportunity. Each episode has four contestants, each of whom must answer questions asked in rapid-fire succession in two timed rounds, while seated in a black leather chair with a bright spotlight shining on their faces. It's a deliberately hostile environment supposedly inspired by the interrogation methods of the Gestapo (at least that's what show creator Bill Wright, a former WW2 POW, claimed).

The first round lasts two minutes, with questions drawn from a contestant's chosen area of expertise—the history of hand knitting, for example, or the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second round lasts two-and-a-half minutes and features general knowledge questions. Contestants can either answer the question or pass and move on to the next. The advantage of passing is to avoid the "time cost" of an incorrect answer, since the host will give slower feedback by saying the correct answer—and seconds are precious. If a contestant passes, the correct answers are revealed at the end of the round. The contestant with the highest combined score wins the episode and goes on to compete in the semifinals and finals, with one person being crowned champion each season.

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