Growing smarter with The Apprentice and Pointless

You’re Fired Up

This programme makes you smarter

The Apprentice: This programme makes you smarter

... and so does this one

… and so does this one


One mustn’t be hurt by the things people say.

But they can sting.

So those of us who love television programmes should ignore the snobbish comments of the Guardian contributor Stephen Moss. After bemoaning the retreat of chess from a mainstream hobby to the fringes, he turns his attention to TV, quoting Charles Dance’s recent complaint about there being nothing to watch, and then joins in:

The Apprentice, Flog It!, Strictly Come Dancing – It Takes Two, The Secret Life of Pets, Pointless.  All truly pointless and, as Dance says, an insult to the intelligence of the viewing public

Well, excuse my French, but how fucking offensive is that.

As it happens, The Apprentice and Pointless are two of my favourite programmes.

Pointless lacks pointlessness

My love of Pointless is multi-layered [the contestants, the humour, the presenters, the … everything], but one reason is that it has redefined the entire quizzing genre and what it means to be intelligent.

If you haven’t watched, the quiz might ask contestants to [picking a question at random] name a capital city that is closer to the North Pole than London is.  It is easy to pick a correct answer, but to win you need to provide one that the fewest members of the general public were able to give.  A simple question*, but it engages the whole brain.

By rewarding little known things, it introduces scarcity into a quiz format that usually relies on shared knowledge or factoids. Pointless isn’t about binary definitions of facts being correct or not correct.  University Challenge and Only Connect are wonderfully intelligent quizzes, but they seem to reward the same sort of cognitive process.  They are individualised – do I know this?

Pointless 1014 2With Pointless we are testing ourselves, and then benchmarking our knowledge: do I know this, and do others?

Take a look at the diagram. Most quizzes want a correct answer – just get onto the top half. Pointless goes further, and then has a continuum – so the further to the right you go the better the answer.

We really need the banter from Xander Armstrong and Richard Osman to rebalance our heads from what is cognitively hard work.

The Apprentice sharpens our skills

As for The Apprentice… Steven Johnson, in Everything Bad is Good for You explained how this programme is not only smart, but is a contributing factor in raising the intelligence of the public. We know from standardised tests over a long period that the public is getting more intelligent, and Johnson points out that this couldn’t be caused statistically by a smarter intelligentsia such as Moss’s beloved chess players, but by mainstream people wising up.

When millions of people watch The Apprentice, do you know what they do?  They think about it and talk about it with others:

The level of cognitive engagement, the eagerness to evaluate the show through the lens of personal experience and wisdom, the tight focus on the contestants’ motives and character flaws – all this is remarkable. It’s impossible to imagine even the highbrow shows of yesteryear [one things of Charles Dance’s Jewel in the Crown] inspiring this quantity and quality of analysis.  The unique cocktail that the reality genre serves up – real people, evolving rule systems, and emotional intimacy – prods the mind into action. You don’t zone out in front of shows like The Apprentice. You play along.

Johnson explains that this full-on engagement is not only about the content – which might be shallow or contrived – but:

‘the cognitive work the show elicits from your mind…from the sheer number of characters involved…the shifting feuds and alliances between more than a dozen individuals.  This activates a component of our emotional IQ: our ability to monitor and recall many distinct vectors of interaction in the population around us’.

This week we had two episodes with 20 personalities, three people evaluating them… Alan Sugar may be firing one, but we are doing the same thing, as well as judging them (then changing our minds), watching their interactions, joining in.  It’s chuffing brilliant.

Far from being an insult to our intelligence, the success of these two supreme programmes rests on giving our brains a work out.  Precisely like playing chess, but more fun along the way.  As Johnson explains, just as the effort to memorise London streets  and their connections changes the brains of London cabbies, The Apprentice and Pointless are changing, growing, the viewers intelligence.  You’d think someone who liked chess would understand this.

* I seem to remember that only 14 capital cities (out of 200+) are more northerly than London is.  It’s seriously North.