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

Enlarge (credit: University of Arizona)

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.

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Author: Jennifer Ouellette. [Source Link (*), Ars Technica – All content]


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