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?

Google Allo
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Google Allo: a chat app like WhatsApp – but with only a cursory consideration for your privacy

When will we stop sacrificing security for stickers of muscular bulls wiggling their butts? 

The world already has enough chat apps. When Google’s latest messaging service Allo launched this morning, a cursory glance showed us it had much the same features as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger before it. You can doodle on your pictures! Here’s an emoji with heart eyes! Look at this sticker of a bull twerking! Oh-by-the-way-we’re-reading-your-messages-hope-that’s-not-a-problem-bye!

Just like Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and Snapchat, the messages you send on Google Allo are not automatically end-to-end encrypted. This type of encryption – which Whatsapp began using in April – means that only you and the recipient of your message can read it and nobody in between. Messaging apps without end-to-end encryption can store your messages on their servers and access them at any time, as well as hand them over to the government if required by law. The technology academic and author John Naughton has likened it to “sending your most intimate secrets via holiday postcards” and Edward Snowden went as far as too call Google Allo “dangerous”.

But Google has a reason for not using end-to-end encryption (whether it’s a good one or not is up to you). The app includes Google Assistant, a tool which can answer your questions within any chat. In order for this to work, Google naturally needs to access your messages. Its new “Smart Reply” feature also means it reads and analyses your conversations to give you personalised auto-reply suggestions. Despite originally promising that it would only store your chat history for a limited amount of time, Google has now admitted that it will retain the data unless you personally choose to delete it. The app is actively trying to learn as much about you as possible, and then storing the data. 

But while Google Allo doesn’t automatically offer end-to-end encryption, it is receiving praise for the ability to opt in via “Incognito mode”. Once this mode is selected, you have end-to-end encryption on your messages, and you can set them to expire after a certain period of time. Wonderful. Brilliant. Article over. No more worries.

Except by placing the onus on the user to opt in to privacy (rather than opt in to Google Assistant) Google has played a trick that many companies have played before. Amazon recently launched a UK version of Echo, a “constantly listening” smart device that records and stores all of your questions, and gave users the option to mute the machine if they were concerned about privacy. But by its very nature, no one who desires this device is concerned about privacy.

And so too with Google Allo. Anyone worried about Snowden’s warning won’t download it, and those who do download it are unconcerned about, or unaware of, the lack of end-to-end encryption. Even the name, “Incognito mode” makes it sound like something that should be used for shady or saucy goings-on, instead of accepting that, by default, all of your private conversations should stay private.

Which begs the question: why don’t most of us care? Allo’s opt-in encryption is actually a vast improvement on Facebook Messenger’s complete disregard for this privacy measure, and that app has one billion active users. Are we truly so distracted by stickers and emojis that we don’t spare a thought for security? Our general apathy towards personal privacy sets a precedent for a future in which – and really, no tinfoil hats are needed here – none of our conversations are ever private.

You probably don’t care because your conversations are boring (no offence). It doesn’t worry us that the government or the police or big businesses are listening because all we’re talking about is whether to meet the lads in Nando’s at six or six-thirty. But no matter how inane our conversations, we should always protect ourselves from eavesdropping.

This is because, as the way Google search histories are used in court shows, your personal data can easily be misconstrued. If you ever did get in trouble with the police, can you really trust them to understand the private jokes between you and your friends, and not construe malicious meanings in your messages? What if third parties accessed your conversations? Companies already use our social media profiles to target advertisements towards us, but what if they scanned our messages to understand us better? Could your offhand conversation about how sick you’re feeling affect your health insurance claims? Will your message about money trouble prevent you from getting a loan?

These are all hypothetical questions, yes, but they are a path our apathy is driving us down. We’d much rather skip through the Terms and Conditions to get a new flashy feature than really scrutinise the data we’re giving away and how it’s used. Companies know this, which is why they hide behind opt-in features like “Incognito mode” and the “delete chat history” button. They can defend themselves by saying the option is there while simultaneously knowing that most people will never actually use it.

There is no easy way to get the wider world to care about privacy, but thankfully there’s probably no way to get them to care about Allo either. It’s not certain whether the messaging app will fail, but given the success of Google's previous chat apps (Talk or Hangouts, anyone?), it seems likely. Then again, none of those had a sticker of a muscular bull wiggling its butt.

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