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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”