The Family Brain Games: Pushy parents and smart kids make this family game show a cut above the rest

Katie Strick
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The Family Brain Games: Pushy parents and smart kids make this family game show a cut above the rest

While there’s a consensus in some quarters that encouraging school children to compete against one another is harmful because it breeds anxiety and promotes inequality, our appetite for watching people outdo each other on TV seems unlimited. Pulling the fittest fittie on Love Island, being the best at ballroom dancing on Strictly or knowing the most on shows such as Mastermind and University Challenge - whatever it is, we seem to get off on watching other people thrash each other on screen, if the viewing figures are to be believed. So here’s a new take on a familiar theme: a competitive IQ show with a neuro-scientific twist.At a time when the latest research suggests, controversially, that IQ is a heritable trait that is more important than upbringing and environment, the programme seems to want to ram the point home by pitting eight of Britain’s “cleverest” families against each other. But as show host Dara O Briain makes clear from the start, it’s not a straightforward “My IQ is bigger than your IQ” contest. It’s about personality, teamwork and the ability to communicate. “Research shows that how the families perform as a team is a key feature of modern intelligence,” he says, before deferring to popular neuro-scientist Hannah Critchlow, who provides a pithy commentary throughout.In episode one, it’s the Ross family from west London versus the Griffiths from Woking, who have both come to the “games lab” at Discovery Park in Kent to compete in tests for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, spatial ability, memory and maths. The set is decked out like a futuristic spaceship, bathed in eerie blue lighting, with a glass-screened observation deck, from where O Briain and Critchlow can scrutinise what’s going on with a fine toothcomb. How will a financier father in his 40s fare against a 16-year-old A* maths student? How does the experience and acquired wisdom of age compare with youthful quick thinking and flexibility? How important are family dynamics and communication skills? What role does pushiness play?“Ninety per cent of the decisions we make are based on emotions, which is particularly difficult for younger members as adolescent brains are still maturing,” Critchlow whispers after one especially heated exchange. And as fascinating as it is to watch the two families wracking the grey matter, it’s this second dimension = and the vignettes of their home lives - that makes the show so compelling. We see the Ross family, with 13-year-old Amelia playing the violin, father Jonathan making marmalade, and mother Katie and son Alexander racing each other to complete their Rubik’s Cubes, while over in Woking, father David shows off his collection of electric guitars, mother Anne quietly reads a book and son Ollie kicks a football around outdoors. It’s quite apparent that IQ alone is not enough to win; it’s down to personality and pushiness too, but then as the geneticist Robert Plomin has said, these are also heritable traits. Watch the show and you’ll see why.

While there’s a consensus in some quarters that encouraging school children to compete against one another is harmful because it breeds anxiety and promotes inequality, our appetite for watching people outdo each other on TV seems unlimited.

Pulling the fittest fittie on Love Island, being the best at ballroom dancing on Strictly or knowing the most on shows such as Mastermind and University Challenge - whatever it is, we seem to get off on watching other people thrash each other on screen, if the viewing figures are to be believed.

So here’s a new take on a familiar theme: a competitive IQ show with a neuro-scientific twist.

Teams: Smiths Vs Simmons - (l-r) Robert, Jane, Ricky, Jason, Chris, Elaine, Daisy, Heidi ( BBC/Label 1/Ryan McNamara)

At a time when the latest research suggests, controversially, that IQ is a heritable trait that is more important than upbringing and environment, the programme seems to want to ram the point home by pitting eight of Britain’s “cleverest” families against each other.

But as show host Dara O Briain makes clear from the start, it’s not a straightforward “My IQ is bigger than your IQ” contest. It’s about personality, teamwork and the ability to communicate. “Research shows that how the families perform as a team is a key feature of modern intelligence,” he says, before deferring to popular neuro-scientist Hannah Critchlow, who provides a pithy commentary throughout.

Pictured: Jonathan, Amelia, Alexander & Katie (BBC/Label 1/Ryan McNamara)

In episode one, it’s the Ross family from west London versus the Griffiths from Woking, who have both come to the “games lab” at Discovery Park in Kent to compete in tests for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, spatial ability, memory and maths. The set is decked out like a futuristic spaceship, bathed in eerie blue lighting, with a glass-screened observation deck, from where O Briain and Critchlow can scrutinise what’s going on with a fine toothcomb.

How will a financier father in his 40s fare against a 16-year-old A* maths student? How does the experience and acquired wisdom of age compare with youthful quick thinking and flexibility? How important are family dynamics and communication skills? What role does pushiness play?

“Ninety per cent of the decisions we make are based on emotions, which is particularly difficult for younger members as adolescent brains are still maturing,” Critchlow whispers after one especially heated exchange.

And as fascinating as it is to watch the two families wracking the grey matter, it’s this second dimension = and the vignettes of their home lives - that makes the show so compelling. We see the Ross family, with 13-year-old Amelia playing the violin, father Jonathan making marmalade, and mother Katie and son Alexander racing each other to complete their Rubik’s Cubes, while over in Woking, father David shows off his collection of electric guitars, mother Anne quietly reads a book and son Ollie kicks a football around outdoors.

It’s quite apparent that IQ alone is not enough to win; it’s down to personality and pushiness too, but then as the geneticist Robert Plomin has said, these are also heritable traits. Watch the show and you’ll see why.