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Use psychology to win millions

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As of this writing, Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer has won 24 games for a total of $1,867,142.00. A lot of people are wondering how he has done it.

The next time you cover memory in Intro, ask your students to work in pairs or small groups to use what they learned in the memory chapter to guess at some strategies Holzhauer has used to remember such a vast amount of information and to be able to recall it. Did your students come up with self-testing? Spaced practice? Elaboration? Interleaving? Dual coding? Ask your students how they would use these techniques to prepare for their own Jeopardy! run.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wanted to know how James Holzhauer has done, so they asked Penn psychology professor Michael J. Kahana and Utah ed psych professor Michael Gardner—and James Holzhauer (Avril, 2019).

First, Holzhauer has learned a lot of content in different contexts. In addition to whatever knowledge he acquired through general reading or through school was learned again through his reading of children’s books—books that can cover a lot of ground in an easy-to-digest way. If Holzhauer learned about Napoleon in high school, for example, and then learned about Napoleon in a children’s book, he has that many more retrieval cues to recall what he knows about Napoleon—information that was learned at different times and different places. And, of course, since the task in playing Jeopardy! is retrieving information, it’s important to practice that retrieval through self-testing. Holzhauer confirms that he has indeed self-tested.

Holzhauer uses priming to his advantage, both in unexpected and expected ways. If Final Jeopardy is a finite category, he mentally flips through possible answers. As an example, he cites the category “European Capitals.” By thinking about Budapest, Rome, Warsaw, Paris, Oslo, Brussels, he is firing up the neurons in his “European Capital” neural network, making it easier to retrieve the correct answer when the question finally comes. Outside of Final Jeopardy, Holzhauer says the game moves too fast to do this. When contestants choose all the questions from the same category one right after the other, though, everyone gets to stay within the same neural network. That’s not Holzhauer’s strategy, though. He jumps from category to category selecting all of the $500 answers first—to amass a good chunk of money that he can wager on a Daily Double. While he doesn’t have time to think through a list of possible answers, but since he knows which category he is going to select before he voices it, his brain does have a few seconds lead time over his competitors in accessing the right neural network. Interestingly, younger people can more quickly retrieve content from a new category than those of us who are older. That jumping from category to category likely gives him an advantage over older contestants.

Then there is buzzer strategy. Is it better to wait until you know you know the answer and then buzz in? Or, is it better to buzz in and hope your brain can find the answer in those few seconds? Holzhauer uses the former strategy. Buzz in first and hope your working memory is able to quickly retrieve the answer from long-term memory.

End this discussion by informing your students that if any of them go on to win on Jeopardy!, your cut is 10%.

 

Reference

Avril, T. (2019, May 16). Can ‘Jeopardy!’ whiz James Holzhauer be beaten? The science of memory and recall, explained. The Inquirer. Retrieved from https://www.philly.com/science/jeopardy-champ-james-holzhauer-speed-psychology-20190516.html

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.