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?

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

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