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?

Anna Leszkiewicz
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Why doesn't falling snow show up on your phone camera?

And while we're at it, why can't you take a good picture of the moon?

If snow falls on the ground and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really happen?

The answer to that question is a firm “No”, much to the chagrin of social media users around the United Kingdom today. There will be no flurry of Likes to accompany today’s flurry of snow, as one by one we each realise it is damned impossible to take a good picture of falling snow on our phone cameras.

 

A photo posted by Mamá 2.0 (@mama2punto0) on

The question is, why?

“All photography is dependent on light irrespective of camera type,” says Matthew Hawkins, a senior lecturer in photography at The University of the Arts, London. “Snowflakes usually fall in times of low contrast and relatively low levels of light.

“This increases the duration of exposure which becomes too long to freeze the motion of an inherently translucent flake.”

So it seems that, provided you’re not trying to shoot on a Nokia 3310, it might not actually be your phone that is the problem. In recent years phone cameras have become incredibly advanced, and the World Photography Organisation even has awards for mobile phone photos.

That said, phone cameras are obviously less advanced than expensive, professional DSLRs, and a lot of digital cameras actually have a “snow mode”, designed to help with the lighting issues that occur when photographing bright, white snow. "Snow scenes generally tend to come out underexposed, so exposure compensation (adding more stops) is usually needed and the automatic settings within a phone camera don't compensate for this," says James Jones, a freelance photographer.

Lauren Winsor, a photography lecturer at Kingston University, adds: “The shutter simply isn’t quick enough to freeze the majority of falling snow. It’s therefore either lost to near invisible motion blur or rendered as inelegant white, out of focus blobs.”

Given that your iPhone is currently trying to catch up with a theatre mode, it’s no wonder that it’s not really designed for the complexities of snow.

But if – as Hawkins says – these problems occur with fancy cameras as well as your phone, then why are your snow photos so underwhelming?

The answer to the question might actually be the answer to life’s many questions: you’re just not very good.

 

A photo posted by kayleepaterson94 (@ironcreature94) on

When I ask Lewis Bush, a photography lecturer (who is currently working on a project that uses satellite imagery for another perspective on the refugee crisis), why it’s so hard to capture a good picture of falling snow, he says it’s isn’t “if you know how”.

Multiple online guides have sprung up to help you get this knowledge, and Paul Moore, of iphonephotographyschool.com offers eight tips for the perfect wintery photo. “Depending on the light and the weather, snow can take on different color hues or even end up a dull gray color,” he writes, advising that it can instead be fixed in editing. A simple black and white filter or a photo editing app can change everything.

And while you’re here, what about nature’s other trickiest photography subject, the humble moon? Bush has advice for any amateur phone photographers looking to capture the big cheese. “The moon is hard, so shoot with manual exposure controls if your phone has them, you could also try using telephoto adaptors that clip on to your phone camera or even borrowing a telescope and shooting through it,” he says.

But if the snow continues to fall and you can't afford a swanky camera, what on earth should you do next?

“Shoot towards something dark,” says Bush. “White snow isn’t like to appear very well on a white background, and use a flash if it’s dark.

“Also, maybe question whether the world really needs more photographs of snow?”

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