The Nation's Pulse

Trivial Pursuits

An excuse to indulge one's passion for hot wings, ale and showing off.

By 1.7.09

Send to Kindle

Ever wonder why men are so much better than women when it comes to retaining generally useless information?

I don't know this for a fact; it's just my impression. Whenever my girlfriend's brother comes to town we'll often visit a local tavern for hot wings and ale and a few rounds of barroom trivia. We enjoy the competition, even though the opposition is mainly 70-year-old soaks. Jim works at a start-up in Silicon Valley, so he's our ace-in-the-hole when it comes to science and high-tech questions. He's also rather knowledgeable when it comes to California punk rock bands. Though she would be loath to admit it, my girlfriend prefers the camaraderie and hot wings more so than the trivia. She sure doesn't answer many of the questions.

Before I get myself into a swamp of trouble, let me acknowledge that this isn't because we are smarter than she is. (It's true that in general men have a slight IQ advantage over women, a "trivial" percentage that means nothing on a practical level, but even I am smart enough to know that her IQ is probably a good ten to twenty points higher than mine. Okay, thirty.) Rather, I think the trivia cards are stacked against women.

First, men simply seem to enjoy trivia more than women. We are more competitive and delight in showing off, especially in front of the girls. Doubtless it's residue from our Darwinian past. We show off to impress the girls and win a top-notch mate. Not that women aren't competitive. Just look at any beauty contest, or the way women passively -- or sometimes not so passively -- fight over the alpha males. It's just that men are more open about their killer instincts. According to the New York Times, three times as many men as women apply to appear on the trivia show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Actually, the best contestants, say the producers, are gay men, who have been exposed to male and female popular culture.) It's pretty much the same story with regard to high school scholar bowl teams, where males outnumber females 3-to-1. Sociologists suspect this is because women underestimate their own intelligence, while men overestimate theirs.

Think about the most common trivia categories: sports, history, science and nature, geography, arts and literature, and entertainment. Obviously men are more up on sports. That's because sports is one of the few acceptable subjects for men to talk about. Suppose you are at a barbecue and you are introduced to your girlfriend's brother-in-law. Neither of you is thrilled with the situation, but you have to talk about something. Basically you have two conversational options: sports or sports. Whereas women can talk about children or TV shows or relationships or fashion or food, or just about anything.

Men are also slightly better at science and mathematics. Don't take it from me. Here it is straight out of the pages of Scientific American: "Men generally are better at mentally manipulating objects and at performing certain quantitative tasks that rely on visual representations." We know men read more history than women (who read more fiction). And according to the National Geographic Society, boys dominate geography bees.

So, even if we give women arts and literature and entertainment, men still dominate four of the six popular trivia categories. You see what I mean about the deck being stacked.


MY OWN EXPERIENCE informs me that men and women remember differently too. For instance, my girlfriend remembers everything we ever said or did together and what she was wearing at the time. I have only a vague recollection of lunch. There are few things I dread more than being quizzed about what she gave me last Christmas. Or what I gave her. Nor can I remember much about books I've read or films I've watched. I have a friend who can recite whole hilarious passages from Catch-22 after having only read it once. I can pick up The Great Gatsby every other year, and it is like I am reading it for the first time. This is very depressing, since it makes me question the point of reading if I cannot retain what I've read. The author Stephen King says a lot of fiction writers have lousy memories, and find this handicap helpful, since they have to rely not on their memories, but on their imagination. This debilitation is probably less useful to us nonfiction writers.

I am, however, inexplicably able to retain an endless assortment of trivial data. The Norman Conquest? 1066. The Battle of Vienna? 1683. Capital of Bhutan? Thimphu. To whom did Melville dedicate Moby Dick? Hawthorne…This makes me an odd amalgamation of clueless know-it-all. Still I suppose there are worse things. Best of all this aptitude gives me an excuse to indulge my passion for hot wings, ale, and showing off.

As if I needed an excuse.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.