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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Why I refuse to complain about email spam

The bleaker things get, the easier it is to be annoyed about absolutely everything.

“I need just one night and your cock
I want to give you a [sic] head Nice [sic] ginger hair and big bubbly boobs”

It reads like poetry. Poetry by an early 00s DVD player that has recently mastered the English language and doesn’t know what to do with it. A DVD player that’s lying on a skip and has a discarded Cornetto sitting atop its plastic exoskeleton like a depressing party hat, sluggishly oozing ice cream into all its crevices. Yes. If a broken and abandoned DVD player were to start writing poems, they’d probably look a bit like that stunningly naïve and post-post-modern cock and bubbly boobs mess.

Innermost contemplations of an obsolete piece of technology or not, these lines of poetry recently appeared in my email junk folder. Subject line: “Sex right now.” Sender: “Teresa Hughes”.

The bleaker things get (economically, politically, socially) the easier it is to complain about absolutely everything. Knowing that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life either living with my parents or renting shitholes from miserly Dickensian landlords makes selfie sticks all the more annoying. And slow walkers. And rugby fans. And people who stand on street corners, shouting about Jesus and doom. All of these things, within the context of generalised rubbishness, are worthy of a billion pissed off tweets.

Spam, on the other hand, the bugbear of the privileged but stressed since about 1996, is one of the increasingly few things about which I refuse to complain. Reason being: spam, the porny kind in particular, has always been there for me… in a way.  

I can’t remember my first email address. Knowing prepubescent me, it was probably a) boringly weird and b) just a fucking abomination. Something like What I can remember though is being emailed about blowjobs way before I knew what they were. Which was, in a sense, educational.

Over the past few days, my junk folder has been inundated by requests from robots who want to do stuff to my penis. This is my first incursion of porn spam in a long while; years, possibly. And I’m finding it almost impossible to be annoyed or disgusted by it. Instead, I’ve been getting nostalgic. Nostalgic for a simpler digital time. A time in which connecting to the internet made a sound like an android with norovirus, and people were trusting enough to click on links in emails with subject lines like, “Mega-PU$$Y 4 U!!!!”.

I like to imagine that, over the next century, great leaders will come and go; empires will rise and fall; bootcut jeans will have moments of fashionableness roughly every fifteen years; and, all the while, people like “Teresa Hughes” will email us reminders that they would dearly like to suck us off, in exchange for a hard drive-melting virus.

Plus, I was only being a little bit facetious about that “poem” thing. When I did an art history elective at uni, a lot of it was spent gazing at pictures of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that urinal that’s art) and wondering what art actually is. Can a urinal be art? Can Danny Dyer be art? And, most pressingly, can spam be art? In one word: sure.

Let’s return our attention to those lines of spam at the beginning of the piece. I shall now attempt to apply GCSE-level analysis to Sex Now by “Teresa Hughes” (the lesser-known offspring of Ted and Sylvia, presumably).

The speaker, a woman, in a grab for immediate attention, addresses the reader directly. The line break after “cock” places emphasis on that word, reassuring the reader just how much she “needs” his/her penis. The unusual phrasing in the next line, “a head”, rather than “head”, for example, is a play on words that neatly juxtaposes [seriously, how much did you use the word “juxtapose” in GCSE English essays?] the primal act of giving head with the intellectual act of having one (and using it).  The alliteration in “big bubbly boobs” highlights the exact largeness and roundness pertaining to the speaker’s breasts. Furthermore, she wants us to know that her horniness transcends grammar.

Even furthermore, spam is literature and the world would be a darker place without it. So don’t be a great honking philistine and complain about it.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.