Why brain-teasers don't work

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Question: Beulah died in the Appalachians while Craig died at sea. Everyone was much happier with Craig’s death. Why? Answer: Beulah and Craig were both hurricanes.

Irritating, isn’t it? Brain-teaser questions are all irritating. It’s not that the answers are hard, just that they’re set in a context you’d have to be odd to anticipate. They’re the verbal equivalent of the game where you offer someone a high-five only to slap them in the face, or of dating men in London. Only a hyperalert psychopath could expect to get it right.

But ever since Microsoft decided to use brain-teasers in recruitment interviews back in the 1990s they’ve been spreading like gas in a hermetically sealed kitchen from which you have exactly nine minutes to escape. Tech firms use them; banks use them; Oxbridge has always used them.

They don’t work for hirers, though. They also actively discourage good candidates and have long-term ramifications for a company’s ability to recruit, according to research that came out in October. After putting 360 participants through the mill, Chris Wright of San Francisco State University found that otherwise qualified workers are put off interviews that use brain-teaser questions because they see them as unfair and setting them up for failure.

More than that, Wright found, interviewers don’t know what to do with the answers. The questions are often open-ended with no clear solution, so employers are often impressed with how a retort sounds, rather than what it includes. With open-ended brain-teasers – “Is this a question?” – it’s the smart-arse “Only if this is an answer” that gets points, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the similar “Is your mum a question?” and “Is your face a question?” scored just as high. In Wright’s study, interviewers did a much better job of working out a participant’s skill level after hearing answers to conventional rather than puzzle problems.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow the psychologist Daniel Kahneman lists a few puzzles that it’s hard to get right. Here’s one: a bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The answer most people give is ten cents: “intuitive, appealing, and wrong”. That would make the bat $1.10 ($1 more than the ball) and the total $1.20. The answer is five cents.

Not too difficult to work out, in the end, so why do people get it wrong? Kahneman says that it’s a question of motivation. Some people are simply lazy and some are, by nature, “engaged. More alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive  answers, more sceptical about their intuitions.”

But I would go further. Some people are expecting to be asked a brain-teaser question and are trying to impress the questioner, and others are simply trying to end the encounter politely so they can get to the bar. If you’re in the latter category, what the brain-teasers are testing is your sensitivity to context. If you’re sensitive enough, you get the answers wrong. Of course you do. The questioner is indicating left. Why would you ordinarily turn right? It would be a monumental waste of energy to expect the unexpected all the time. Thank goodness most of us don’t.

Infant protégé? Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Thanks to social media, ordinary people can now influence elections more than tabloids

The Conservatives spent £1.2m on online adverts – but the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.

Who or what spread the single most influential message of the 2017 general election? Was it Britain’s top-selling tabloid, the Sun, which chose 7 June to chastise us all with: “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin”? Was it Facebook, home to Theresa May’s £1.2m anti-Labour adverts that pleaded: “Don’t risk Corbyn in charge of Brexit”? Or was it Jennifer ­Agnew, a 21-year-old administrative assistant from East Kilbride?

You’ve probably heard of the first two. Since the newspaper first claimed as much in 1992, it has been a popular idea that it’s the Sun wot wins elections. This year, much has been made of “dark ads” on Facebook – paid-for messages that political parties can spread across the social network, beyond the gaze of the Electoral Commission. You’ve probably not heard of Agnew, but you might have seen her viral tweet.

After Theresa May disclosed the “naughtiest” thing she ever did on ITV’s Tonight, Agnew took to Twitter to mock the revelation. “Never have I ever ran [sic] through a field of wheat,” she wrote above a picture of May drinking from a glass of water, riffing on the student party game in which one drinker confesses to a misdeed and others take a sip if they, too, are guilty. Her tweet was shared more than 24,000 times and gained an additional 60,000 “Likes”.

“It was just a joke, really, but also poking fun at the difference in classes,” says Agnew, whose post went on to be retweeted by the pop star Ellie Goulding. “I can’t say I’ve ever run around in a field of wheat as a child being chased by farmers. It seems rather middle class.”

On 8 June, Agnew voted for the SNP. She didn’t intend for her tweet to have political ramifications but describes herself as “a big fan of Corbyn”, saying: “As far as politicians go, he’s honest.” Yet, regardless of Agnew’s intentions, her tweet was political. It was a powerful anti-May message – and it didn’t cost the Labour Party a penny.

Since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, it has been widely understood that elections are fought across social media. Algorithms, some claim, boosted the fake news that propelled Donald Trump to office. By adding like-minded people as “friends” and deleting any dissenters, we all became entrapped in filter bubbles, unable to see the 2015 election result coming.

Face­book adverts that were micro-targeted to spread specific messages to specific people helped to bolster the vote for Brexit. All of these analyses are true, but each misses the most transformational aspect of social media. You know: the actual media part.

As of December 2016, the Sun had 1,611,464 readers every day. That’s a lot. But nowadays, people don’t need Rupert Murdoch and a printing press to wield political influence (they do, however, still need a witty pun). According to Twitter’s ­analytics tool, Agnew’s tweet reached over 2.9 million people. Everyone now has the potential to have the reach and influence of a tabloid.

Her tweet isn’t remarkable. It is merely one of thousands of viral social media posts that have spread this election, many of which generated headlines (“This Facebook comment about Jeremy Corbyn is going ­viral” read one on Indy100, the Independent’s sister site).

Hannah Thompson, a 24-year-old PR officer from Surrey, is another meme-maker. When the concept was introduced by Richard Dawkins, a meme was “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Now, it most commonly means “funny internet picture”. Yet memes might be just as influential as Dawkins’s original definition implied.

“I pretty much exclusively use Twitter as an avenue for my lame political jokes,” says Thompson, who tweeted a zoomed-in picture of Theresa May with the caption: “Nice wheat field you’ve got there. Would be a shame if somebody . . . ran through it” (7,243 retweets, 22,450 Likes).

“It would be helpful if more politicians understood the ‘social’ element of social media,” she adds. “Then, instead of spending hundreds of thousands just getting views for their posts, they can create things that actually engage people and help shift the narrative in people’s minds. I was really impressed by how Labour encouraged their members and activists to share things online. Seeing posts by actual human beings, rather than a party, is way more convincing than seeing a paid-for ad.”

There is a chance that, by the next election, politicians will have realised that a picture is worth a thousand words. Astro­turfing, the practice of masking the origin of a message to make it seem like a grass-roots opinion, is already common online. Advertisers frequently create profiles for fake teenagers, who then tweet about how much they “love” a product in order to make it seem popular.

After the shock election result, analysis by BuzzFeed revealed that stories published on the websites of right-leaning news­papers (such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun) failed to reach large audiences on Facebook and Twitter. BuzzFeed’s headline read: “Not even right-wingers are sharing positive stories about Theresa May on Facebook”. The most shared stories on social media were pro-Corbyn.

For all of the Conservatives’ power and wealth, their social media campaigns did not take off. Why? Because they weren’t inherently social. Theresa May relied on pounds to push her message, while Agnew and those like her relied on people.

As one social media user put it (receiving 8,790 retweets and 19,635 Likes): “Tories spent £1,200,000 on negative anti-Jeremy Corbyn social media adverts ... And the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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