It can be quite satisfying and doesn’t have many downsides.
That’s how psychologists describe the mental health benefits of trivia.
The way people play trivia games continues to evolve whether it’s folks enjoying Trivial Pursuit at home or attending a pub trivia night.
But the basic premise remains the same: People enjoy the thrill of providing correct answers to questions about lesser-known facts.
“You get a rush or a neuroreward signal or a dopamine burst from winning,” John Kounios, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the doctoral program in applied cognitive and brain sciences at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, told Healthline. “I think whenever you’re challenged with a trivia question and you happen to know it, you get a rush. It’s sort of like gambling.”
He said the benefits can also be similar to those of playing a video game.
However, unlike gambling and even video games, Kounios says trivia is generally not a habit that’s a problem.
“I don’t think there are any pitfalls,” he said. “Like anything else that’s fun, it takes up time.”
Those who like to play
Sarah Kishler, 42, a librarian in California, loves trivia games and enjoys attending a monthly pub trivia night in which a team of librarians participates.
“Learning facts so that I can get better at trivia is definitely a passion of mine,” she told Healthline. “Getting a question right is definitely very satisfying to me.”
Over the past 10 years or so, pub trivia nights that are popular in the United Kingdom appear to have grown in the United States.
People like Kishler enjoy getting to interact with people at these events, especially compared to electronic trivia games.
She finds that doing well at trivia games gives her “a feeling of validation” and increases her self-esteem.
“I love general knowledge, geography, literature, music, science trivia,” she said. “I just love to accumulate knowledge. I like the exercise that it gives my brain and memory.”
She doesn’t view herself as a competitive person but nevertheless enjoys getting a bit amped up at trivia games.
Connecting with people
Laurel Chestney liked to participate in trivia games at bars with her dad and ended up starting a company in San Diego, Live Prize Trivia.
Her firm organizes trivia nights for local bars, complete with questions and the same host each week.
“It’s kind of retro,” she told Healthline. “It’s putting our phones down and talking to each other.”
Many of the bar events involve writing with pencil and paper. They draw people of all ages.
“It provides a ‘Cheers’ environment where everybody knows your name,” she said, referring to the 1980s-era television show about regulars at a bar.
“People really like to have some expertise on something and the brain is very good at focusing on things that you’re interested in,” Deborah Stokes, Ph.D., L.P.C., B.C.N., a psychologist in Virginia, who focuses on neurotherapy, told Healthline.
She said that learning large bodies of knowledge can often start with trivia. And people who are interested in trivia can be brainy, have a high IQ, and be smart on a lot of levels.
But Kounios noted that people aren’t necessarily better at trivia games just because they’re more educated.
“Some people soak up facts,” he said. “Plenty of people with a lot more education may not remember what they had for breakfast yesterday morning.”
“In typical people, my observation, not backed up by any research, is that their interest in trivia is confined to topics that they are generally interested in,” added Kounios. “So if a person is very interested in history, then they may either seek out history trivia, or they might just naturally pick it up in the course of learning about nontrivial aspects of history.”
He noted that some people with autism have a preoccupation with one or two narrow interests.
“These people want to know everything about their interest, whether trivial or nontrivial,” he said.
Your brain on trivia
Retaining information about things we’re interested in can be like exercise for the frontal cortex as the brain ages, Stokes pointed out.
“That’s the first thing to go with injury or with age if we don’t use it,” she said.
While knowing trivia is likely part of an intense interest in a topic for anyone, Kounios said, “this can motivate a person to the point at which they collect information about that topic compulsively. This might be called the ‘collect them all’ phenomenon. People collect facts about a topic the way a stamp collector collects stamps. The more, and the rarer, the better.”
Stokes said there can be downsides if someone is obsessive about focusing on one thing and has gaps in their knowledge base or is compulsive about looking up facts instead of engaging with people. “Trivia can light up hoarding circuits” in the brain, and games can light up addictive circuits.
“Some people are compulsive about gathering information on a topic,” Kounios said. “It’s only a problem if they’re ignoring other things in their lives.”