Thursday, March 19, 2015

Men dominate the ranks of elite Jeopardy players

Ever heard a contestant give a ridiculously bad answer on Jeopardy? Here are three recent favorites:
Category: Of the Game
Yakutsk and Irkutsk are two territories to conquer and control in this game of attrition.
Contestant: "What is Clue?"
Category: "A"cademy Award Nominees (correct response must start with "A")
11 nominations, 1984; it won 8 Oscars, including Costume Design
Contestant: "What is Titanic?"
Category: It's at the Smithsonian
Logically, one of these weapons from Star Trek
Contestant 1: What is a stun gun?
Contestant 2: What is a lightsaber?
One reason these are humorous is that Jeopardy contestants aren't random people off the street. They are all trivia geniuses. I'm pretty good with trivia myself, but I've repeatedly failed the show's entrance exam. There's really no shame in that. Think about it: There are roughly 245 million American adults, but only 350 or so get to play on Jeopardy each year. They are the crème de la crème.

The three finalists from Jeopardy's Battle of the Decades tournament.

Which provides another opportunity to look into the gender imbalance in elite intellectual pursuits. Should we expect men to perform better than women on Jeopardy? On average, men have superior visual-spatial skill, but Jeopardy requires little of that. More relevant would be mean sex differences on general information tests (male advantage) and verbal fluency (often a female advantage).

But here I'm interested less in means than in variances. The ability distributions for men generally have "fatter tails," meaning men outnumber women among both the worst of the worst and the best of the best, even when the averages are the same. If this is the case with trivia, we should see men disproportionately represented among Jeopardy contestants, and we should see greater disproportions as we look at more exclusive groups of contestants. That's exactly what we do see.
Percentage of women among...

Jeopardy contestants:          40 %

Jeopardy winners:              30 %

tournament winners:            12 %

“best of the best" winners:     0 %
The first two percentages are courtesy of a Slate article from last year. I calculated the last two percentages based on the winners of the annual Tournament of Champions and the five "best of the best" tournaments, respectively. (I did not look at lesser tournaments for teens, teachers, college students, etc.) Only three women -- Rachael Schwartz, Robin Carroll, and Celeste DiNucci -- have won a Tournament of Champions. When it comes to the "best of the best" tournaments, which bring together the strongest players in the show's history, just one woman has even made the finals. That was Leslie Frates, who finished third in the Tenth Anniversary Tournament back in 1993.

Robin Carroll is an interesting story. After winning her Tournament of Champions in 2000, she was the American representative in a special international tournament (not included in my best-of-the-best calculations), which she won handily. However, she had a significant advantage as a native speaker in an English-language competition. She has since competed in three best-of-the-best tournaments and failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals in any of them.

In my estimation, Pam Mueller is the best female Jeopardy player of all time. In the "Battle of the Decades," Jeopardy's most recent best-of-the-best tournament, she was the only woman among the nine semi-finalists. She did not make the final round.

So what's with this right-tail domination by men? I'm speculating here, but obsessiveness seems to be more common in males. People who immerse themselves in a passion, who devote their lives to it, who become almost Rain Man-like in their knowledge of it, are more often men. And the odder the passion, the more male the obsessives seem to be. Even the world's leading experts on My Little Ponies are men! A weird obsession with trivia is probably what it takes to be successful in a game like Jeopardy.

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